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UK admits just half of methane emissions

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Methane emissions in the UK could be twice as high as government estimates, new European research suggests.

The findings, reported in today's New Scientist magazine, come from Peter Bergamaschi of the European commission joint research centre at Ispra in Italy.

Rather than taking countries' own internal estimates at face value, Bergamaschi and his team produced their estimates by analysing the distribution of methane in the atmosphere.

The team collected the raw data using chemical detectors that check for atmospheric methane. Then they tracked backwards through recent weather systems to see where the methane was likely to have originated.

Other countries could also be underreporting their emissions. France could be underestimating its methane production by 47 per cent, according to the researchers.

Until recently, Germany was reporting 62 per cent less methane than this study suggests it generates. However, the German government recently, and apparently independently, revised their figures upwards by 70 per cent, The Guardian reports.

Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Although it only survives in the atmosphere for between 10 and 20 years (around a tenth of the time CO2 will hang around), its warming effect is more than 20 times greater. In addition, when it does break down, it forms water and, yes, CO2.

The publication of the research coincides with the latest figures from the European Union. These show that, even excluding emissions from aviation and shipping, the UK's emissions rose by 0.2 per cent between 2003 and 2004. Across Europe the rise was 0.4 per cent.

The news has not pleased environmental groups, and is probably not making for happy people in Westminster, either. At a time when the UK is supposed to be cutting its emissions of greenhouse gases, research indicating it has been drastically underestimating how much we produce will not make for comfortable reading.

The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) says other assessments of the UK's estimates don't indicate any problem with its methodology.

"We believe Bergamaschi over-estimates UK methane emissions by at least a half," it said in a statement, arguing that Bergamaschi's method can't separate man-made from natural methane, which leads to considerable uncertainty in his model.

The department also argues that any change in measuring methodology will have no impact on its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, which call for a 12.5 per cent proportional reduction in emissions as compared to levels in 1990. ®

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