Mitigating methane

A key framework for methane mitigation

Hey there,

We have something special for you on tap today, namely a collaboration between myself (Nick) and Sam Abernethy at Spark Climate Solutions. In this deep dive, we'll describe the four pillars of methane mitigation. Let us know what you think.

The newsletter in <50 words: A four-part framework to address methane: 1) implement "no net cost" emissions reductions, 2) incentivize addressable emissions that come at some cost, 3) fund R&D for new emissions reduction approaches, and 4) fund R&D to understand whether and how to augment natural methane sinks.

DEEP DIVE

Perhaps you’ve heard it before at this point. Methane doesn't get the attention it deserves. Despite having caused 0.5°C of warming already – roughly a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming – methane receives only ~1% of all climate finance ($13.7B of an estimated $1.3T total). This year's methane emissions will cause more warming than this year's carbon dioxide emissions over the next decade. Don't get us wrong – carbon dioxide is still critically important; over long time horizons, carbon dioxide will be the primary driver of warming. But we can't afford to think about methane and carbon dioxide as an "either or." Nor does it make sense to mortgage methane work for the future to prioritize carbon dioxide work today. It’s almost 130°C in India. 

The stakeholders needed to take action on methane are also often different from those concerned with carbon dioxide. All of this is to say, we can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can catalyze action across climate adaptation, decarbonization, carbon dioxide removal, and reducing other greenhouse gases. In fact, doing all these things in concert rather than separately should be mutually reinforcing rather than competitive.

Accelerating solutions to reduce and prevent methane emissions is a path to securing fast, significant wins against global warming, especially given methane's strong warming impact over short timescales. Today, we'll explore the different potential interventions – many of which require action from different stakeholders – that must all progress in parallel.

A new framework for methane mitigation 

Methane mitigation comes in several flavors. In rough order of decreasing market ‘readiness,’ there are four categories:

  1. Deploy current win-wins: Implement emissions reduction approaches that pay for themselves.

  2. Create more win-wins: Incentivize emissions reduction approaches so that cost-effective ones are implemented.

  3. Develop new solutions: Fund applied research to develop new cost-effective emissions reduction approaches.

  4. Manage nonlinear climate risk: Fund fundamental research to better understand rising natural emissions and potential ways to enhance methane sinks.

In broad strokes, ~25% of human-caused methane emissions could pay for themselves, a further ~33% can technically be avoided today, while another ~42% currently have no technically feasible ways to address them directly (sources like methane emissions from ruminants could be mitigated indirectly by reducing demand for products from livestock and animal agriculture in general). These figures are explored further in this study spearheaded by Ilissa Ocko and several others.

1) Implement the emissions avoidance approaches that pay for themselves

What gets measured gets managed. This old adage summarizes what’s needed for methane emissions, where it’s often in the best interest of emitters to avoid emitting in the first place. The clearest example here is in the oil and gas industry. Often, methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, whether at the wellhead or from pipes transporting natural gas. In many cases, this is a product escaping into the atmosphere that would otherwise be sold. This isn’t true in all cases; in some oil producers flare or vent gas that builds up in their drilling operations or infrastructure while not themselves being gas producers. Still, in other cases, companies that have infrastructure to sell gas still flare it. The reasons for this are multivariate, but in some cases, the return on investment to mitigate methane leaks may pale in comparison to the return of investing in, for example, developing a new oil and gas project. And in others it’s an infrastructure question — some gas is stranded by the absence of pipeline to move it around.

Methane flaring at a natural gas export terminal (Shutterstock)

Still, up to half of all oil and gas methane emissions could be avoided at no net cost to the emitter. To accelerate the avoidance of these emissions, better measurement technologies that can identify and quantify these leaks are essential. This includes ground-based measurements, aerial flyovers, and new satellites like MethaneSAT which will support better emissions detection (and are revealing that past estimates of methane emissions were typically far too low). Nick wrote more about measurement technologies and dynamics here. Further, the same types permitting reforms that could help accelerate renewable energy infrastructure could help oil and gas producers build new infrastructure to capture rather than flare and vent gas.

2) Incentivize emissions reduction approaches so that cost-effective ones are implemented

While ~25% of anthropogenic emissions can be avoided with approaches that introduce no net cost, the next category of emissions, namely those that are technically feasible to reduce but don’t inherently pay for themselves, comprise ~33% of the total pie. In order to incentivize implementation of these approaches, we’ll need either new carrots (parties willing to pay for a methane credit) or sticks (regulatory penalties like a methane fee). Or both.

At present, the carrot side is slim. There aren’t many proactive buyers of credits for methane abatement, which is limiting the number of new startups in the space. There are meaningful new sticks coming online, such as the EPA’s new waste emissions charge, which puts a price on fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations. But these are currently confined to sectors (namely oil and gas) where technologies and solutions to methane emissions are already reasonably well understood. To incentivize innovation to address methane emissions that can’t currently be addressed at no net cost, for instance in the livestock, wastewater, and landfill sectors, more robust carrots or more expansive sticks are needed. Governments should take responsibility to develop incentives to expand the implementation of cost-effective emissions reduction approaches.

Both globally and in the U.S., livestock are the number one source of human-caused methane emissions (Shutterstock)

3) Fund applied research to develop new cost-effective emissions reduction approaches

Alongside new incentive and regulatory structures to support the implementation of technically feasible emissions reduction approaches, additional applied research is required to expand the scope of cost-effective emissions reduction approaches. Currently, ~43% of anthropogenic methane emissions don’t have technically feasible mitigation options. Of these, the lion’s share is attributable to methane emissions from livestock. It’s worth noting behavioral changes can make a difference on that front; if many people abstained from eating meat and reduced consumption of dairy products, that could reduce cattle herds globally, also reducing methane. To date, however, while per capita beef consumption has fallen slightly, global beef and milk demand has been stubbornly sticky due to certain behavioral changes being more complicated in developing countries. 

Given the urgency to act on methane, options to reduce these methane emissions are sorely needed. Research to develop these approaches will require funding from philanthropies and governments. Again, this is particularly important for livestock emissions, ~70% of which aren’t addressable through currently available technical approaches, along with ~44% of methane emissions from rice and ~30% of methane emissions from wastewater.

The above visualization comes from this article

4) Fund fundamental research on pathways to enhance methane sinks

Worryingly, methane emissions from natural systems, especially from wetlands and melting permafrost, are starting to rise due to climate change — sometimes referred to as “anthropogenically-amplified natural methane emissions.” Despite coming from natural systems like thawing bogs and tropical deltas baking in the sun, they’re not really entirely “natural” afterall, in that these systems are changing and emitting more methane as a result of human-caused warming, changing precipitation patterns, and other human-driven changes. 

As greenhouse gas emissions continue, the likelihood of natural methane emissions rising increases significantly. Even if we start making progress reducing greenhouse gas emissions, natural methane emissions will still rise as there’s both a lag between reducing emissions and reducing warming and reducing emissions enough to halt warming will take a long time. For a sense of scale, rising natural emissions could contribute ~0.05-0.2°C of warming by 2050. This range depends on both our underlying warming profile (driven by our anthropogenic emissions trajectory) and how sensitive natural systems end up being to climate-change-induced impacts. The top end of the range is comparable to the warming many countries hope to prevent by reducing human-caused methane emissions 30% by 2030

Humanity presently has no way to address rising natural methane emissions, other than slowing global warming overall, which, lest we forget, is our critically important ‘plan A.’ So an argument you may have heard about methane – “we can turn it all off and it’ll just go away on its own” (referring to its decadal half-life) – is unfortunately incorrect in the case of rising natural methane emissions.

Several scientists are investigating atmospheric methane removal as a potential option to reduce the likelihood of feedback loops where rising natural methane emissions become self-reinforcing given the warming they drive. Unlike carbon dioxide, which requires capture and storage to be durably removed from the atmosphere, methane can be broken down (turned into carbon dioxide and water), which is its natural fate in the atmosphere anyways. This difference between methane and carbon dioxide helps explain why there may be viable methane removal approaches despite its even more dilute atmospheric concentration.

One category of potential methane removal approach are “closed systems” – similar to DAC for carbon dioxide – where methane could be oxidized in a localized reactor using heat, light, or methane-eating bacteria. Another category of potential “open system” intervention seeks to enhance methane’s natural sinks of chemically reactive radicals in the atmosphere or methane-eating bacteria in soils. 

All atmospheric methane removal approaches are at extremely early research stages; not much is yet known definitively about their efficacy, costs, benefits, and unintended consequences — innovation is needed across approaches to make them pencil out. Developing a better understanding of the potential of these approaches will also require a lot more research and development which should be funded by philanthropies and government institutions. As we write this, The National Academies are writing a report on atmospheric methane removal, expected later in 2024. It will lay out research priorities in this nascent field, and we’ll keep you in the loop on its findings when it comes out.

The net-net

Some solutions to the methane problem are more straightforward, even if they aren’t simple. It may be easier to plug a natural gas leak than to develop a 10-year scientific roadmap to evaluate the efficacy and safety of an atmospheric methane removal approach. However, we need to mitigate methane as fast as we can, in every way we can, simultaneously. We should encourage progress towards multiple approaches in parallel, with a sense of urgency given the time sensitivity of climate change. Some of these areas might require years of research and innovation, but that’s all the more reason to start them now to ensure that as many options as possible are on the table. Meaningful methane reductions – regardless of how they are done – could significantly reduce warming.

Above all, a fundamental resource allocation shift is needed: methane mitigation needs more financial capital, human capital, research and development, policy, and general attention. A problem causing one-third of anthropogenic global warming deserves more than 1% of climate finance. Reducing methane is one of the fastest ways to slow warming, buying time for other climate and adaptation work. It’s time we collectively act like it.

Calls to action

Want to get involved in methane mitigation? Spark Climate Solutions is a science-driven nonprofit dedicated to identifying and mitigating sources of unmanaged climate risk – including natural methane emissions, enteric methane, and atmospheric methane removal. Get in touch with Sam to learn more about Spark and with Nick if any of this discussion touches areas you’d be keen to dive deeper into. 

Hope y’all enjoyed this one. Let us know if so.

— Nick

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