U.S. Methane Emissions 50 Percent Higher Than EPA Estimates
Emissions of methane from fossil fuel extraction and refining activities in the South Central U.S. are nearly five times higher than previous estimates, according to researchers at Harvard University and seven other institutions. Their study, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), also suggests that the contribution from livestock operations may be twice as high as previously thought.
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Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced through natural gas production and distribution, cattle farming, landfills, coal mining, manure management and many other anthropogenic and natural sources, though human activities are thought to contribute approximately 60 percent of the total.
Overall, according to the new study, total methane emissions in the U.S. appear to be 1.5 times and 1.7 times higher than the amounts previously estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the international Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), respectively.
The difference lies in the methodology. The EPA and EDGAR use a bottom-up approach, calculating total emissions based on “emissions factors”—the amount of methane typically released per cow or per unit of coal or natural gas sold, for example. The new study takes a top-down approach, measuring what is actually present in the atmosphere and then using meteorological data and statistical analysis to trace it back to regional sources.
Generated by a large, multi-institutional team of researchers, the latest findings offer a robust and comprehensive baseline for assessing policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases. They also point to a few areas where the assumptions built into recent emissions factors and estimated totals may be flawed.
“The bottom-up and top-down approaches give us very different answers about the level of methane gas emissions,” notes lead author Scot M. Miller, a doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Sciences through the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “Most strikingly, our results are higher by a factor of 2.7 over the South Central U.S., which we know is a key region for fossil-fuel extraction and refining. It will be important to resolve that discrepancy in order to fully understand the impact of these industries on methane emissions.”
Miller is a 2007 graduate of Harvard College and earned a master’s degree in engineering sciences at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in 2013. He studies in the lab of Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at SEAS.
“When we measure methane gas at the atmospheric level, we’re seeing the cumulative effect of emissions that are happening at the surface across a very large region,” says Wofsy, a coauthor of the PNAS study. “That includes the sources that were part of the bottom-up inventories, but maybe also things they didn’t think to measure.”
Miller and Wofsy, along with colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and five other institutions, used a combination of observation and modeling to conduct their analysis.
NOAA and the U.S. Department of Energy collect observations of methane and other gases from the tops of telecommunications towers, typically about as tall as the Empire State Building, and during research flights. The team combined this data with meteorological models of the temperatures, winds and movement of air masses from the same time period, and then used a statistical method known as geostatistical inverse modeling to essentially run the model backward and determine the methane’s origin.
The team also compared these results with regional economic and demographic data, as well as other information that provided clues to the sources—for example, data on human populations, livestock populations, electricity production from power plants, oil and natural gas production, production from oil refineries, rice production and coal production. In addition, they drew correlations between methane levels and other gases that were observed at the time. For example, a high correlation between levels of methane and propane in the South Central region suggests a significant role for fossil fuels there.
“This paper provides the most solid and the most detailed estimate to date of total U.S. methane emissions,” says coauthor Anna M. Michalak, a faculty member in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Michalak is also an associate professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford University. “This was really, from beginning to end, just a very clean analysis.”
Along with carbon dioxide, methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases in terms of its potential to raise global temperatures. It also encourages the formation of surface ozone in cities and affects other aspects of atmospheric chemistry.
Seeking to establish a baseline against which to measure future change in methane emissions, the researchers compared observational data collected in 2007–2008 against EDGAR and EPA data for the same year (using the revised EPA data for 2007–2008 that was published in April 2013). Future studies will apply the same analysis to present-day data.
“The beauty of the approach we’re using is that, because we’re taking measurements in the atmosphere, which carry with them a signature of everything that happened upwind, we get a very strong number on what that total should be,” says Michalak. “Now that we know the total does not equal the sum of the parts, that means that either some of those parts are not what we thought they were, or there are some parts that are simply missing from the inventories. It really offers an opportunity for governments to reexamine the inventories in light of what we now know.”
In addition to Miller, Wofsy and Michalak, coauthors included Eric A. Kort, S.M., Ph.D., the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Arlyn E. Andrews, Ph.D., Edward J. Dlugokencky and Stephen A. Montzka at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory; Sebastien C. Biraud and Marc L. Fischer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Janusz Eluszkiewicz and Thomas Nehrkorn at Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, MA; Greet Janssens-Maenhout at the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy; and Ben R. Miller, John B. Miller and Colm Sweeney at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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