It seems we've been "fudging the numbers" in a sense, when comparing the global warming potential of methane to CO2. When global warming potential (GWP) of a gas is calculated, a time frame is assumed. The IPCC decided to use a 100 year time frame.
With a 100 year time frame methane heats up the planet 21 times as much as CO2. The problem with that assumption is that we don't have 100 years. A 20 year time frame would be much more realistic, given the urgency of climate crisis. With a 20 year time frame...
... any CH4 released today is at least 56 times more heat-trapping than a molecule of C02 also released today. And because of the way it reacts in the atmosphere, the number is probably even higher, according to research conducted by Drew Shindell , a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. [emphasis mine]
What if we were to use the IPCC’s 20-year comparison instead of its 100-year comparison? For starters, it would force us to get much more serious about tackling the sources of methane emissions. Here in the US, the top methane sources are the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture (from ruminant digestion), and leaks from natural gas drilling and transmission. A new emphasis on methane would require us to get smarter about capturing methane at landfills, reduce the market incentives that encourage Americans’ meat-heavy diets, and ensure that methane isn’t leaking from fracking operations.
But beyond the policy specifics, adopting the 20-year global warming potential comparisons would be useful for changing how we think about climate change.
And we appear to be approaching some irrevocable tipping points that will create powerful negative feedback loops, the most worrisome being the release of methane stores at the bottom of the ocean and locked into sub-Arctic permafrost.
Image from Arctic Methane Release Tipping Point Diagram
With 56 times as much warming as CO2 in mind, we'd take this feedback more seriously.