How Cutting Methane Emissions Could “Start Putting the Brakes” on Damages from Climate Change

Carbon dioxide emissions have dominated discussions about climate change, but reducing the amount of methane released into the atmosphere can also make an impact.

Later this month, the world’s largest gathering devoted to climate change, COP26, will convene in Glasgow where world leaders are expected to discuss carbon dioxide emissions and methane emissions from oil and gas production, waste and agriculture.

Two Duke earth science and environmental policy experts discussed these issues Wednesday with reporters in a virtual media briefing.

Watch on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:

DREW SHINDELL, earth science professor, Nicholas School of the Environment

On the role of methane emissions in climate change

“Methane is the second-most important of the greenhouse gases. It’s driven nearly half of the warming we have seen to date. One of the things that’s really different about it compared to carbon dioxide is the lifetime. Methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide.

We very critically need to start reducing our carbon dioxide now … precisely because it lasts for hundreds, many hundreds or even thousands of years in the atmosphere.

If we don’t start putting the brakes on CO2 emissions this decade, we are in for a rather dismal-looking future.

Since it’s such a slow part of climate change, if we put the brakes on, we still are not going to see that much impact on climate in the next 30 years or so. That’s really where methane, while it’s number 2, plays an extremely complementary role.

If we put the brakes on methane emissions, since it doesn’t last in the atmosphere so long, and it’s a very powerful greenhouse gas, we can actually start putting the brakes on damages from climate – the kinds of things like the wildfires, the hurricanes, the heatwaves that are falling upon us all too often these days – we can actually put the brakes on those in the next 20 to 30 years.

That really gives methane a distinct and differentiated but highly complementary role in the climate story.”

KATE KONSCHNIK, director, Climate & Energy Program, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Duke University Energy Initiative

On why methane emissions are attracting more attention now

“The science has gotten so much better. It has made us realize that methane is a bigger issue than we previously thought in a number of key industries, like oil and gas, coal mining, agricultures and landfills.

Also, the new technology that scientists are deploying are enabling us to see what was an invisible pollution issue often for a very long time.”

“There’s not always a lot to be optimistic about in the climate change space, but methane is of course also the primary constituent of natural gas. So in this case this pollution is also a useful product. Because of that, a lot of the cost-benefit analyses of intervening and stopping leaks of plumes of methane then realize you can often then sell that methane into the market and because of that you can often do these mitigation interventions at no cost or even at net benefit to the company plugging those leaks.

This can be a very cost-effective way … to address climate change and to mitigate greenhouse gases quickly in the near term.”


On importance of upcoming COP26 meeting

“I’ve been working on climate modeling and projecting our future for decades. When I started doing this, we were really thinking about things that would happen in the distant future. If we ran a model in the 90s, there were all these things to worry about down the line. Now that we’re in the 2020s, the things we worry about are in the newspaper rather than in our future projections. California burning. Much of the west burning. Heat domes. They are the hurricanes that hit in our part of the country. They are just so manifest that I think we’ve run out of time to say ‘well, we’ll get to this a little later.’ ”

“At this point it is really critical to start putting the brakes on both CO2 and methane. If we don’t, we will very rapidly lose all hope of keeping temperatures (rising) below 1.5. We’re already at about 1.2 degrees. The temperatures are warming at a rate of on the order of a couple tenths of a degree per decade. That gives us at the most maybe 20 years or so and we will have passed the threshold that all of the scientific research define as at least mildly catastrophic.

We’ve really run out of time. We need to take action right away. We talk about the total amount of carbon we can emit, and we’re running out of that budget. There’s only a couple decades left. We need to start bringing fossil fuels out of the mix and at the same time … what fossil fuels we are using, we want to make sure they’re being used efficiently. We don’t want to be leaking methane from those systems.”


On importance of new US policy on climate change

“There is a lot of consternation in the administration about not having that deal in hand, that having a multi-trillion-dollar package focused on climate change and adaptation would be a strong signal to the global community just before this UN convening.

I do think, though, it is not, though, the whole ball of wax. We were never going to get tough limits in these budget and infrastructure packages on greenhouse gases, methane or carbon dioxide.”


“I am quite convinced that the administration is in good faith trying to do all they can and that they have some wonderful people on board. I do think that they will find a way, regardless what happens with the budget reconciliation discussion, to make good progress.”

“In the methane space in particular, the U.S. has been one of the countries spearheading a new global push to bring down methane, which is something really unprecedented. We haven’t had this focus on methane.”


On benefits of reducing methane emissions

“Unlike many of the other pollutants that I have spent a long time studying … methane plays a major role in climate change as it’s a powerful greenhouse gas, but it also is one of the main precursors to surface level ozone.

Ozone up in the stratosphere is good for us. It keeps UV radiation from bombarding the surface. Ozone near the ground is not just not good for us, it’s very, very bad for us. Ozone is one of the main components of smog. When people breathe that in, there are definitive epidemiological studies linking that to increased death from cardiovascular disease, from respiratory disease, from multiple toxicities of ozone exposure.”

It’s also bad for crops. Ecosystems don’t like being exposed to ozone either.

So if we were to meet the goals of this methane pledge, and reduce methane worldwide on the order of 30 percent, we would around the world be saving a couple hundred thousand lives every year from reduced ozone exposure. We’d have 20 million more tons of crop yields to feed people around the world. We would have increased labor productivity because neither extreme heat or ozone exposure is good for workers. And we would start seeing a reduction in all the climate damages coming upon us.”


On cost-effectiveness of controlling methane emissions

“Say you look at an oil and gas well pad. One of the challenges of methane … is that this is not like a coal-fired power plant where you’ve got this large boiler and you have a smokestack coming out of it and the vast majority of emissions are coming through that smokestack.”

“One of the challenges of methane is that it can be leaking and being vented, it can be released from a whole host of pieces of equipment, as many as thousands of pieces of equipment at a single, multi-well, well pad. So that makes it challenging.”

“If you are able to plug those leaks, if you are able to capture methane when you are completing a well or doing well maintenance, when you would normally let that methane vent for safety reasons, you can actually draw it off with a vapor recovery system and put it back into your gathering lines and send it off to the sales lines. You have the opportunity to turn that waste product into your sales product. Methane is the primary constituent of natural gas. So you can then use it for sale.”


On dealing with waste globally

“All countries of the world have large methane sources. In the fossil fuel sector, that is confined to several major countries. The top dozen or so would dominate the total emissions from fossil fuels. But every country has agricultural sectors and every country has waste. Across economies, it turns out that the per-capita organic waste is quite similar. We throw out a lot more plastic stuff and other disposable things in wealthy countries like the U.S. than poorer countries do, but we all pretty much throw out a similar amount of organics.

So when you bring countries together to do something about methane, you don’t in my experience get quite as much finger pointing that you get with CO2, where a poorer country rightfully says ‘we’re not responsible for climate change and our per capital emissions are very low so you guys should take most of the action and we’ll sit by.

With methane, we all kind of need to come to the same table. We all have our part to do. We all get clear and immediate benefits because the response is so quick.”


On encouraging companies to capture methane

“This is a very robust discussion right now. There’s certainly the view out there that you don’t necessarily need more incentives because so much of these interventions pay for themselves. There is the incentive on its own. You also often hear industry – and again I’m thinking mostly in the oil and gas space – you see industry making the argument sometimes that they don’t need regulation because ‘this is a no-brainer for us. Of course we would limit methane emissions because we can then sell that useful product.’ ”

“There are some companies, and it generally tends to be larger companies … that in recent years have taken this more seriously and have been taking steps to reduce their methane emissions. Often they have a footprint in countries that have required this or strongly incentives this and that has helped them get a head start.”

“This is a really diverse industry and in particular in the U.S. we have an incredibly competitive landscape with the oil and gas industry with a lot of smaller, undercapitalized players. They may make the argument that even if you take as true that 40 percent of the interventions will ultimately result in profit because they can sell the gas they capture, there are still opportunity costs there because they could have spent that money drilling more wells.”

So we need more than the natural incentives that you can capture this gas and then sell it.”

Meet the experts:

Drew Shindell

Drew Shindell is Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Earth Science at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He studies climate change, air quality and links between science and policy. He previously served at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and has received awards from Scientific American, NASA, the NSF and the EPA. He has testified on climate change before both houses of Congress and chairs the scientific advisory board for the international Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Kate Konschnik

Kate Konschnik is director of the Climate & Energy Program at the newly merged Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Duke University Energy Initiative. Konschnik is also a senior lecturer at Duke Law School. Her work focuses on public electric utility regulation, electricity market reforms and effective governance of unconventional oil and gas production and transport. She previously served as chief environmental counsel to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and as an environmental enforcement trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.

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