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Could a single methane moonshot outpace a thousand carbon cuts?
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Could a single methane moonshot outpace a thousand carbon cuts?

Cracking down on methane emissions could have a quick and dramatic impact
March 30, 2023

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Nobody talks about their methane footprint, but maybe they should. The gas in natural gas is 85 times worse for the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. So even though the world has been releasing gigatons of fossil carbon from coal and oil since the 18th century, the latest IPCC report blames methane for a full third of global warming in the Industrial Era. But methane and CO2 have key differences. Where carbon is pumped out by most cars and many homes today, about two-thirds of all methane is emitted from centralized sources like oil and gas facilities, coal mines, wastewater plants, and landfills. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last year set the stage for a methane moonshot with the US’s first ever fee for emitting a greenhouse gas. That would be a bold move. But does it risk shifting attention from critical zero-carbon goals? 

 

• • •

The Case for Methane Quick Wins

1.  The lowest of hanging fruit. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, compared to centuries for CO2. Anything we can do to cut methane emissions today will pay off in our lifetimes, rather than our great-grandkids. We can make a hefty dent in methane emissions simply by capturing gas currently leaking into the atmosphere from refineries and landfill sites. Fewer leaks means more gas to sell. As such, about 40% of methane emissions from oil and gas production could be eliminated without costing a cent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. And a beautifully-illustrated McKinsey report notes that a full 90% of potential methane emission reduction in key industries could be achieved at a cost of less than $25 per ton of carbon-dioxide equivalent —a price sometimes paid in the voluntary carbon markets.

About 90% of methane emissions could be abated at a cost of less than $25 per metric ton of carbon

Source: Curbing methane emissions: How five industries can counter a major climate threat. McKinsey Report, Sept 2021.

2.  It can be more than just a fuel. Obviously, we shouldn’t be burning fossil methane at all. But once it’s out of the ground—or captured from a landfill—we can do much better than using it as a fuel. A research team at Stanford University has come up with an impressive plan to use methane to produce food for aquaculture operations. Methane-derived additives could replace about 14% of current fishmeal, which would in turn reduce pressure on today’s over-harvested fisheries. There are also plans afoot to use methane to produce electricity directly, without burning it in a natural gas power plant. The technology, which uses methane-munching bacteria, is still in its infancy, but has the benefit of producing no CO2 at all. 

3.  Meat without methane. Another big source of methane is agriculture, and particularly cattle.  Changing people’s behavior is never straightforward but new technologies are making the prospect of eating fewer cows—and avoiding their copious methane emissions—a tasty possibility. The sooner we hit “peak beef” worldwide (we’ve likely already managed that in the US), the better. 

 

• • •

The Case for Staying on

Message with Carbon

1.  Carbon is the bigger problem. Fossil carbon is less of a greenhouse gas than methane, but humanity produces a whole lot more of it. Carbon dioxide not only leads in absolute volume of emissions, but also causes at least three times the global warming of methane. Every dollar spent to decarbonize society could scale more efficiently that one spent on methane reductions.

US Greenhouse Gas Emissions chart

Overview of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2020. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

2.  Decarbonization’s halo effect. Shifting our energy supply towards renewables, and our energy use towards electrification, shrinks the market for oil and gas. This will have the knock-on effect of fewer industrial methane emissions anyway.

3.  Climate is more than just a numbers game. The climate message is finally breaking through. The latest survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that the number of Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber climate skeptics, by a factor of more than four (70% versus 16%). For many people, climate change is synonymous with their carbon footprint. Muddying the waters with a methane moonshot risks confusing and alienating people all over again.

 

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  Plugging the methane regulation holes. Oil wells aren’t the only things that are leaky. The IRA methane fee has so many exemptions that it will apply to only 43% of America’s oil and gas facilities, Quartz reports. It also omits cattle farms, landfills and other sources. Will politicians step up to close the loopholes?

2.  Sky high leak estimates. Early next year, the world’s most advanced methane-tracking satellite, cleverly named MethaneSAT, will launch from New Zealand. It will locate and quantify methane emissions anywhere on Earth—and some estimates suggest that it will discover far more leaks than are currently known today.

3.  New rules from Europe. Last December, the EU introduced new rules to cut methane emissions, including a gradual ban on venting and flaring. Methane emissions of the EU’s energy imports, such as growing liquid natural gas shipments from the US, will also be traced, which the bloc says could lead to further rules.

4.  Methane direct air capture. It’s early days, but scientists are thinking about using dirt cheap minerals, similar to those found in cat litter, to sequester and catalyze methane straight from the air.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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