HEEP Director Robert Stavins Moderates Climate Action Week Panel on “Strategies for Mitigating Global Methane Emissions”

Read more about the panel and access the recording.
By Doug Gavel

Efforts to measure and mitigate the impact of methane emissions was the topic of discussion last Monday (June 10, 2024) at a panel convened as part of Climate Action Week in the Northwest Building, sponsored by Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability and moderated by Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP) Director Robert Stavins.

“Strategies for Mitigating Global Methane Emissions” featured the perspectives of four leading climate policy experts: Mark Brownstein, Senior Vice President for Energy Transition at the Environmental Defense Fund; Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School; Adam Pacsi, Methane Policy Advisor at Chevron; and Steve Wofsy, the A. L. Roth Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Stavins framed the discussion by describing how reducing methane emissions fits into the larger picture of global climate policy.

“Although the quantities of methane from anthropogenic sources going into the atmosphere are much less than the quantities of CO₂, methane emissions abatement can be exceptionally valuable, because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, particularly in the short term,” he said. “That can be of great value in order to give the world time to bend the curve on CO₂ emissions, to conduct more research on carbon sequestration and removal, and more generally to implement long-term effective strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Brownstein outlined the major sources of methane emissions from human activities. Approximately one-third comes from fossil fuel production, he said. Another 40 percent comes from agriculture. (Ninety percent of the agricultural total comes from livestock; the remaining 10 percent of agricultural emissions comes from rice farming.) Landfills and garbage dumps are responsible for approximately 10-to-11 percent of total methane emissions.

“At the Environmental Defense Fund, we tend to focus a lot of our efforts on the fossil fuel sector, in particular oil and gas, because among all of those key sources, the oil and gas industry actually is a reasonably homogeneous group of actors… And the strategies for reducing methane pollution or eliminating it in the oil and gas industry are very well understood, and in some cases actually have a net payback,” he remarked. “[Natural gas is primarily methane, so] every molecule of methane that goes into the atmosphere is one less molecule of energy that could be put to productive use. So, in many respects, when the oil and gas industry takes steps to reduce methane pollution, it’s really an opportunity to capture energy resources, and so there is some economic value in doing it.”

Wofsy spoke of the importance of measuring methane emissions through sophisticated satellite technology which can now decipher precisely why and where emissions occur.

“We have at least one satellite – TROPOMI – that measures globally every day… And of course, when you’re going to measure that large an area that quickly, you’re not going to have very high spatial resolution. You’re not going to be able to see little things. Then there are other types of satellites that can see the little things, but they can’t see the big picture… And then there’s the MethaneSAT satellite [which is] funded by Environmental Defense Fund… The goal of that satellite is to go in between those two scales to be able to measure very fine scale [but over a fairly large area],” he stated. (MethaneSAT launched in March 2024 and, after being calibrated, will begin sending data later in 2024.) “Taking those three together, you can then get a picture of where the methane is being emitted all over the world, begin to understand what the underlying processes are, and begin to take [action].”

Brownstein explained how the three types of satellites connect with a United Nations institution, the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO), which serves as a clearinghouse for emissions data.  

“It really brings daylight to the problem. Where is it happening, why is it happening, how much? And that should be a tool then in the toolbox to bring [methane emissions] down,” he said.

Pacsi described Chevron’s efforts to manage its methane emissions through three distinct sets of actions.

“One is on facility design. That’s putting in equipment to actually capture the methane gas in the field and use it for something productive, be it sales, on-site energy use, those sorts of things. And there’s a variety of different known technologies for doing that… The second is operating practices. [That is] actually how you manage a site from day to day with a methane-minimization mindset,” he remarked.

“The third is using advanced technology, and I think that’s been the area that’s been the most interesting from a technology development standpoint. When I think back five years ago or so about the options that we had for trying to detect and measure emissions, it was really a lot of handheld technologies, very manual, very labor-intensive operators going around from valve to valve and site to site looking for emissions. What’s happened over the last five years is concerted technology development to get better tools both by industry and groups like the Department of Energy.”

Freeman expressed optimism about current efforts to monitor and mitigate methane emissions.

“I think we’re on our way to continuous emissions monitoring. You’ve got the ability to detect these giant plumes that we never could detect before that are venting vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere with really terrible consequences.

And you can address this,” she said. “You can actually make progress so you can feel like you’re actually able to control this and make a contribution to improving or slowing climate change. So, there’s real promise here.”

Freeman also lauded international efforts like the Global Methane Pledge, involving 155 countries that have committed to reducing their collective emissions globally by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, and the commitment made by 50 national oil and gas producers at COP 28 to set 2050 net-zero targets for scope one and two emissions.  

“These commitments could be extremely meaningful because the [oil and gas] industry produces a huge amount of methane,” she stated. “If you put together industry initiatives with the regulatory initiatives and with [recent advancements in] the science and technology, you have something really significant.”

Freeman said industry players have real incentives to reduce emissions.

“It’s now table stakes for the oil and gas industry to say, ‘we’re going to take care of our own methane leaks that we control… because we’re trying to make the argument that natural gas is a bridge fuel to the future. So, we have to do something positive about controlling our own emissions,’” she remarked. “The lesson is you can sometimes get alignment with government policy, with at least some of industry, if not all of industry, that wants to row in your direction.”

The panel concluded with a brief Q-and-A session, with questions ranging from the impacts associated with aging infrastructure to international cooperation.

The discussion was one of several Climate Action Week events at Harvard, which convened hundreds of experts who explored ideas to further reduce emissions and advance adaptation strategies that are politically viable, economically desirable, easily scalable, and durable for the short-, medium-, and long-term.