With the 26th annual international climate summit (COP26) underway in Glasgow, U.K., methane is basking in the spotlight. The potent heat-trapping molecule was once a footnote in discussions about climate change, largely because it breaks down much faster and is less abundant in the atmosphere than the more notorious greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).
Now, however, researchers and policymakers are paying more attention to reducing methane. Yesterday, more than 90 nations signed the Global Methane Pledge, promising to pursue a 30% cut in emissions by 2030. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday announced plans to, for the first time, heavily regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Some companies, meanwhile, have begun voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions.
In large part, such efforts are a response to recent research showing methane emissions—including leaks from producing natural gas, which is up to 90% methane—are far bigger and more common than previously thought. Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the U.S.-based environmental group the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has some of that work. Hamburg recently spoke with ScienceInsider about the research, as well as next year’s planned launch of an EDF-backed satellite, called MethaneSAT, that will track methane emissions globally, and the creation of the new U.N. International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). We have edited the interview for brevity and clarity.
Q: It seems like methane is really having its moment.
A: It is the methane moment. It all relates to time. It used to be thought that we can get rid of the short-lived climate pollutants [such as methane] at any time, because they’re quick reacting, so we should focus on CO2. In a way it was absolutely the opposite, and that’s what we now realize. Because [some warming gases] are short-lived we can slow the rate of warming quickly [by cutting those emissions]. I’m talking about the near term—which I like to characterize is in my lifetime, in my daughter’s lifetime—and the long term, which is in my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s time frame. What will happen over the next 20 years is dominated by short-lived pollutants we will release today. We need to use the fast response system, which is the short-lived climate pollutants, while we aggressively go after the long response system, which is CO2. I think of [them] as two climate problems. We need to solve both. The tools to solve them are different.
Q: When did you first start to think about methane in a more focused way?
A: In 2009. I’m an ecosystem ecologist, and I was thinking about bioenergy and the climate footprint. I thought: “We have that problem with short-lived climate pollutants versus long-lived. How is that handled?” When I dug into it, I realized that wasn’t being handled at all. We didn’t know how much methane was being leaked, typically from the oil and gas supply chain. I had been driving a compressed natural gas van at Brown [University] where I used to teach. We bought it because it was the environmental thing to do, it had less impact than a gasoline version. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were doing a lot of climate damage for many decades, because of the methane leakage problem. I didn’t sign up for that temporal trade: Do damage now, benefit later. Nobody understood that. When I presented this internally in EDF, in 2010, I said: “It’s all about time, time, time.”
Q: You ran this huge field operation where you had people with methane monitors, flying airplanes, all kinds of stuff. Why didn’t you just collect the methane data put out by EPA and add them up?
A: Because we knew the data were not very good. You couldn’t reduce emissions if you don’t know where they’re coming from. It was clear nobody had the data. We needed a lot more data to really understand the problem and fix it. That segues to why we at EDF are building a satellite, MethaneSAT. I’m now chair of the Science Oversight Committee for the [IMEO]. That’s a UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] organization that will have its coming out party at [COP26]. We’re doing studies around the world.
Q: How do you see the improved tools for measuring greenhouse gas emissions, such as new satellites, affecting international climate policy?
A: You’re starting to get a clear picture of what’s happening around the world. You’re going to understand where the emissions are coming from, and how they’re changing over time. And you’re going to have good quantification. I believe that’s a game changer when it’s done properly, and it’s done in the right form, so people can use it. That data can be picked up and can be used to affect the kinds of changes that are required. That’s what we’ve seen with methane. Once we started highlighting how much was happening, industry made a commitment to do much lower [emissions] levels.
Q: Do you worry that cutting methane emissions is sort of the easy fix, and it lets people off the hook from doing harder, longer term things?
A: No. It’s not the easy fix. It’s the thing that can reduce the damages in the near term, while we address the longer term issues. The fact that we have the technology to roughly halve methane emissions says it’s possible, which is a good sign. We’ve still got to execute it.
Q: How does it feel, now that methane is getting this attention?
A: It feels great. It’s what we want, right? It’s a big lever to depress [methane emissions], but we’ve got to collectively push down. Having dozens of countries saying “Hey, we’re going to focus on methane” is a big, big step forward.