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Stanford University Demonstrates the Possibility of an Overlooked Climate Change Solution

The United States and the European Union have committed to reducing methane emissions. President Biden called on other countries to join them in this effort earlier this month. Several new studies led by Stanford University may help pave the way for future research on methane removal technologies by laying out a blueprint for coordinating research on methane removal technologies and modeling how the approach could have an outsized impact on reducing future peak temperatures.

The findings of the research, which will be published on September 27, 2021, in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, show that removing approximately three years' worth of human-caused emissions of the potent greenhouse gas would reduce global surface temperatures by approximately 0.21 degrees Celsius while lowering ozone levels by enough to prevent approximately 50,000 premature deaths per year. The findings open the door to direct comparisons with carbon dioxide removal – an approach that has received significantly more research and investment – and have the potential to influence national and international climate policy going forward.

In the words of Rob Jackson, lead author of the new research agenda paper and senior author of the modeling study, "the time is ripe to invest in methane removal technologies." University of Stanford's School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences is home to Jackson, who is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor of Energy and Environment.

The case for methane removal

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the relative concentration of methane has increased at a rate that is more than twice as fast as that of carbon dioxide. Because methane is 81 times more potent in terms of warming the climate over the first 20 years after its release, and approximately 27 times more potent over a century, removing it from the atmosphere could reduce temperatures even more quickly than carbon dioxide removal alone. Methane removal also improves air quality by lowering the concentration of tropospheric ozone, which is responsible for an estimated one million premature deaths per year due to respiratory illnesses due to exposure to the gas.

In contrast to carbon dioxide emissions, the majority of methane emissions are caused by humans. Methane emissions from agricultural sources such as livestock, which emit the gas in their breath and manure, and rice fields, which emit methane when they are flooded, are the primary culprits. Waste disposal and fossil fuel extraction are also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Natural sources of methane, such as soil microbes in wetlands, account for the remaining 40% of global methane emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Because some of them, such as thawing permafrost, are expected to become more prevalent as the planet warms, they further complicate the picture.

While the development of methane removal technologies will be difficult, the financial rewards that could be realized are substantial. Market prices for carbon offsets could reach $100 or more per ton this century, as predicted by the majority of relevant assessment models. Each ton of methane removed from the atmosphere could be worth over $2,700 at that point.

Considering the ramifications of methane removal

An innovative model developed by the United Kingdom's national weather service (known as the UK Met Office) is being used to examine methane removal's potential impacts while taking into account the fact that methane has a shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide. This is an important consideration because some of the methane removed would have disappeared regardless of whether it was removed. A set of scenarios was developed by the researchers by varying either the amount of CO2 removed or the timing of CO2 removal in order to generalize their findings across a wide range of realistic future emission pathways.

According to the findings of the study, a 40 percent reduction in global methane emissions by 2050 would result in a temperature reduction of approximately 0.4 degrees Celsius by 2050 under a high emissions scenario. A methane removal of the same magnitude could reduce the peak temperature by up to one degree Celsius in a low-emissions scenario where temperature peaks during the twenty-first century.

"This new model allows us to better understand how methane removal alters global warming and air quality on a human scale," said Sam Abernethy, a PhD student in applied physics who works in Jackson's lab and the study's lead author and coauthor of the research agenda. "Methane removal alters global warming and air quality on a human scale," he added.

From the stage of research to the stage of development

The road ahead to achieving these climate and air quality improvements is still unclear at this time. It does so by comparing and contrasting aspects of carbon dioxide and methane removal, describing a variety of methane removal technologies, and outlining a framework for coordinating and speeding up the scale-up of these technologies. The framework would aid in the more accurate analysis of methane removal factors, which could include everything from location-specific simulations to potential interactions with other climate change mitigation strategies.

Currently available technologies – such as a class of crystalline materials known as zeolites that can absorb the gas – are making it more difficult to capture methane from the air, but the researchers believe that emerging technologies, such as zeolites, hold the promise of a solution in the near future. They argue for more research into the costs, efficiency, scaling, and energy requirements of these technologies, as well as potential social barriers to their deployment, co-benefits, and potential negative by-products of their use.

In addition to dozens of new companies being formed, "carbon dioxide removal has received billions of dollars in investment," Jackson said. "We require commitments on a par with those made for carbon dioxide removal."

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