The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

How to tackle methane in a meat-eating world?

May 10, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
How to tackle methane in a meat-eating world?
Show Notes Transcript

Did you know that methane is more than 25 times more potent than CO2 in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere? In this episode we look at reducing methane emissions without mandating veganism. Our guests Anatoli Smirnov and Sabina Assan are researchers at Ember, international data analysts for clean energy solutions in the power sector.

Despite drives to plant-based eating in the West, meat consumption is only going up and will not change any time soon. The other big methane emitters come from the power sector. Coal mining emits 52 million metric tons of methane per year, more than is emitted from either the oil sector, which emits 39 million tons, or the gas industry, which emits 45 million tons. So closing coal mines is the only viable alternative in tackling methane. Global methane emissions from the energy sector are about 70% higher than the amount national governments have officially reported. Methane reduction is  critical. 

Check out the methane hub to find out about how world leaders and businesses are looking to fulfil the 2030 methane pledge: https://globalmethanehub.org/ 

You can read more about Ember's work here: https://ember-climate.org/insights/commentary/coal-mine-methane-leaks-worse-than-shipping-aviation/

Lauren:

Hello, you're listening to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. I'm Lauren Sneade, and I'm talking to Sabina Assan, researcher at Ember, a team of international energy data analysts looking at the power sector. We're here, along with Anatoli Smirnov also at Ember, the coal mine methane lead

Anatoli:

The easiest way to reduce agriculture methane there. emissions is to for people to go vegan. And that's politically very, very, very sensitive. So whilst this is the most substantial source of methane emissions, politically the easiest, [although] it is still not easy, the easiest way to reduce emissions is to focus on the energy sector methane emissions from oil, coal and natural gas.

Lauren:

So I began by asking why is methane such an important issue?

Anatoli:

Hi, thank you for inviting us. So I'm Anatoli, I lead coal mine methane at Ember. Actually methane is an incredibly complicated topic. It's comes from manmade and natural emitters. So there's many many, many important emitters. And I would say that where we really focus is the methane emissions in the energy sector, and particularly methane emissions from the coal mining sector is where most of our work is focused,

Lauren:

Isn't agricultural methane, particularly from farming cows, the biggest issue?

Anatoli:

It is the largest source of manmade emissions. So from that perspective, that is correct. But it is also one of the most challenging to address because it involves telling people what to eat. The easiest way to reduce agricultural methane emissions is to for people to go vegan. And that's politically very, very, very sensitive. So whilst this is the most substantial source of methane emissions, politically, the easiest way to reduce emissions is to focus on on the energy sector methane emissions from oil, coal and natural gas.

Lauren:

What types of energy are producing the most methane and their emissions?

Anatoli:

Whilst we've seen that coal mines are being closed, the actual coal production is pretty at record levels or even more so. We're not even sure you could say the coal mines are being closed. In the developed world in the European Union in the US and Australia there are some moves to reducing coal mining, and ok in the European Union it has been quite successful but in Australia, coal mining is still important and sometimes it's even growing. Many new coal mines come online. So the policy response on mine closure's quite quite mixed. And we argue that whilst obviously closing coal mines is the quickest way to reduce methane emissions, there are other ways to reduce methane emissions in terms of regulating the way you mine the coal, or in terms of like regulating how much coal mine methane you capture, from active coal mines.

Lauren:

Oh right, okay, so you're saying that there are types of coal mining, which means that there's less methane released in the process?

Sabina:

Yes. So not all coal is the same, you have some coal that is gasier than other coal. So in the process of mining, gasier coal, generally more methane is emitted into the atmosphere. So one way to start reducing methane emissions is to really start closing down the super emitting coal mines and stop mining the gaseous coal. Another way is obviously to stop methane leaking from coal mines. So that's another option.

Lauren:

And where are these super gassy cold mines?

Sabina:

Poland has got a quite gassy coal we've found, but it can vary a lot between even within a country there will be regions of gasier coal mines than others. And in Europe, if we're talking about just Europe, Poland, probably has the gasiest cold.

Lauren:

Basically, this is a question about our reliance on coal, and how far off you think we would be from making proper changes to reduce the methane coming out of coal mines.

Anatoli:

We divide coal into two types of coal. One is for electricity generation, and one is used for steel production. And we think that the coal that's used to [produce] electricity generation, we're perfectly capable of phasing it out very quickly, using renewable energy, using some other technologies, which I won't go into, but it's definitely within our economic and technological capacities. I mean, that comes at a cost, but it's not even a huge cost. At the moment, the bigger question is about coal used in steel production, because even to implement the energy transition, we will require a lot of steel and there isn't really ready made technology at any reasonable cost at the moment, of course, that allows you to replace coking coal, so called coking coal that is used for steel production. Unfortunately, this coal is also associated with the highest level of methane emissions because of the geological properties that it has. So there's two parts of this question. One is the thermal coal part that we think is totally feasible to reduce our consumption drastically. But with steel, metal, steel coal, we need to address it through new research and technologies.

Lauren:

And do we have any answers to the steel production coal problem?

Anatoli:

it's not my area of expertise, but the direction seems to be in green hydrogen, which is because you could use coking coal to to reduce iron to make steel or you could use hydrogen. At the moment, our global green hydrogen capacities are a tiny fraction of what is required for such a transition and also it ends up quite expensive per tonne of steel. But it is a little bit outside of our direct expertise.

Lauren:

In the discourse on this topic on climate generally, I've often found greenhouse gas emissions, that phrase can be used interchangeably with CO2. And obviously, methane and CO2 have very different properties. And it seems that the question of methane is being elided when we talk about greenhouse gas emissions and people's minds first spring to CO2. So how do CO2 and methane behave differently in the atmosphere?

Sabina:

We talk about methane as a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, because the moment that methane is emitted, it has what we call a greenhouse gas warming potential of you know, 120 times that of CO2, but CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas methane has quite a short impact in terms of it has only a 12 year life time, on average. They're two different gases, they work quite differently. And I think Anatoli can also tell you a bit about why we shouldn't be always comparing methane and CO2.

Anatoli:

It's very challenging to compare the two gases because they just have different life cycles. CO2 is much more prominent, as Sabina said, and methane is short lived, but more potent. We think it's very dangerous to get into debate of one against the other. The IPCC estimates that methane has already added one degree to global temperature rise in the last few decades. And CO2 a little bit more. It's already had a very important contribution. But the answer is really to treat them a little bit separately and tackle the emissions of methane and CO2. And to not say, 'oh, if we tackle methane then we could continue to emit CO2'. This is not how it's going to work, we will need to work on both gases very aggressively to have a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Lauren:

When referring to CO2, we talk about carbon capture and storage in terms of new technologies and also in terms of trees. Is there an equivalent for methane?

Anatoli:

Yeah with methane, you don't need to actually capture it, you just need to destroy it, because then it converts to CO2. So it's a slightly different physics of the process. In that sense, it's easier. But the challenge is there's far lower concentrations of methane in the atmosphere than CO2, we're talking about parts per billion versus parts per million, like hundreds of parts of per million for CO2. With such low concentrations, it's really difficult to target that. I think the technologies are getting there. But they're very early, early stages. And again, to do at a global scale will be impressively challenging.

Sabina:

I guess one point to add there is even that in terms of capturing anything that's being emitted, there are plenty of technologies that can capture the methane being emitted directly from or like stop even methane being emitted directly from the sources such as oil, gas, and coal. So these technologies exist, and these technologies can be implemented.

Lauren:

Have changing agricultural practices changed atmospheric methane levels?

Anatoli:

If you look at the charts around methane concentrations in the atmosphere, they have been growing very stratospheric in the last few decades, like really a sharp rise, way sharper than CO2. Whilst we don't know which sources it's coming from, we know there's more methane in the atmosphere. It's very likely to come from agricultural sector, a lot of it, but the science is a bit mixed. And this has been a great challenge for every sector thus far. So we work in the energy sector. And we know that our measurements are quite not as precise as we'd like them to be. And we suspect the same stories with agriculture and other and waste, landfills, wastewater, and many other sources.

Lauren:

So let's talk for a minute about government policies. Can you think of countries which are dealing well with the methane problem? Is it being addressed enough? Is it being addressed at all in regulations?

Anatoli:

Until very recently, the methane methane emissions have been quite forgotten by policymakers and I think only about a year or two ago where it became really to the center of policymakers attention, because they realised it's actually way quicker and cheaper and arguably easier fruit to tackle, low hanging fruit is the word. In November, over 100 countries globally contributing to 70% of the global GDP, have signed the so called methane pledge. And this is the commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% in this decade, so this is a really promising step. But sadly, quite a lot of countries have not signed it, most notably China, Australia, who are big methane emitters. Otherwise, the European Union has been really active in the policies, so they've developed the so called methane strategy to develop the strategies to reduce methane emissions, and have started to pass some legislation to tackle methane emissions. So really, at the moment, that's the global world, and also European Union. We're hoping more countries will take leadership.

Lauren:

And there's been lots of noise in the press hasn't there about Biden, trying to really tackle methane. Do you know much about what he's doing over there?

Anatoli:

It's also tied around the methane pledge. So we don't really know specifically American policies around methane. It's not been at the centre of our focus at Ember. But yes, Biden and John Kerry were at the centre, like the core promoters of the methane pledge and have done the biggest diplomatic effort. And also, just to add to this, they've, in the last few months, they've set up this organisation called the Methane Hub, which is philanthropy lead. That has committed to to provide about 300 million US dollars towards developing technologies and solutions to methane emissions. And that was really led by Biden. Whether 300 million US dollars is enough for such a huge problem is a question. I think it's a really good step. But I think ideally, you'd want more eventually. But it's definitely been done by by Biden, and John Kerry.

Lauren:

And would you say that the main thing that policymakers need to be focusing on looking to tackle methane is actually properly cracking down and getting those coal mines shut?

Anatoli:

Yes. If there's coal mine methane, you want to close this many coal mines as possible, that is not in itself, sometimes sufficient, because even if you close a coal mine, depending on the geological conditions, it may continue to emit methane for decades afterwards. So you need to find some solutions around capturing and destroying this methane. And that has been done in like Germany, Czech Republic, UK, and [on] occasion, smaller scale in Australia in the US. But yes, if you want to reduce coal mine methane, you really want to reduce coal mining.

Lauren:

Yeah, I mean, the general talk about the energy crisis seems to have been that, actually, because there's such a shortage of energy. And so much energy is needed is needed to fill the surplus, that the green solutions just can't provide it on the scale that we need it.

Sabina:

I think we can provide it, obviously, it will take a little bit of time, because we need to get everything into action. It's just about the deployment of renewable energies and getting it done at a scale that's fast enough. There are also other types of energy, like the nuclear reactors that can, you know, keep on giving us some base energy while we move on to renewables, and it's also been shown that some by not shutting off some of the coal plants now but avoiding to move on to gas later on, and still going on for phasing out coal by 2030, we can still kind of reach these green climate goals in terms of renewable energy, without having to rely on coal after 2030 or 2050.

Lauren:

And just as a final question, do you think that we're on track to phase out coal by 2030?

Sabina:

I wish we were. It doesn't look like we are. Obviously in Europe, we seem to be more on track than other countries, but Europe also is not the biggest polluter, or user or miner of coal. You know, we really need to look at other major countries such as China and Australia and Indonesia, and so on, for us globally to be on track, because in the end, it's about global emissions.

Lauren:

Thanks very much for our guests Sabina Assan and Anatoli Smirnov Research Analyst at Ember. We've been the Economy Land and Climate podcast. If you like what you've heard, head on over to our website www.elc-insight.org or you can follow us on Twitter at @ELCInsight. Tune in next time when Alasdair will be talking to investigative journalist Sonia Shah about her new book, The Next Earth Migration.