From Glasgow to Comm Ave: Cutting Methane Emissions
From Glasgow to Comm Ave: Cutting Methane Emissions
BU’s Nathan Phillips on whether UN climate summit pledge will prompt leaking gas line repairs in Boston and the United States
As Washington wrangles over climate change measures, the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow, known as COP26, has notched a major accomplishment: a pledge to cut global methane emissions. As a greenhouse gas, methane is less common and shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, accounting for 10 percent of human-caused greenhouse emissions in the United States. But it is more potent at holding heat, warming the atmosphere 80 times faster than CO2.
And it comes, in part, from aging, leaking natural gas lines under our streets. For more than a decade, Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, has been documenting leaks in Boston (including at Boston University) and around the country. (Methane also comes from oil and gas rigs, whose emissions President Biden promises to limit for the first time, and from oil and gas wells, and Biden will restore those limits abolished by Donald Trump.)
“Our work in Boston continues,” says Phillips, “and we look forward to working with the next mayoral administration to make Boston a leader in addressing this issue.” (Mayor-elect Michelle Wu will be inaugurated later this month.) We asked Phillips to assess the significance of the Glasgow pledge.
With Nathan Phillips
BU Today: How much of US methane emissions come from leaky gas lines?
Nathan Phillips: Fossil fuels are the single largest source of methane emissions in the United States, about a third of all human-caused US methane emissions. That’s from everything: old, leaking, abandoned gas and oil wells and coal mines; the whole process chain, from well pad to burner tip in our homes; and the big, high-pressure trunk lines down to the small, low-pressure pipes going into our homes.
In our urban pipeline systems, my colleague Lucy Hutyra [a CAS professor of earth and environment] and her colleagues at Harvard showed that about 2.5 percent of methane has been leaking from our natural gas system in Massachusetts for the better part of the last decade. [That’s] about half of the entire natural gas process chain leak rate. That may not sound like a lot of leaking gas, but it’s about 10 percent of our entire Massachusetts greenhouse gas emissions inventory. At BU, we have a nice one-two punch to look at the leaking natural gas issue from the top down and the bottom up: with Lucy taking a top-down look, while my work has focused on locating the leaking methane sources coming out of the ground.
BU Today: Is the Glasgow pledge a significant step, or must governments provide funding for line repairs to give the pledge teeth?
Nathan Phillips: The Glasgow pledge is a significant step—30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030—and yet the pledge is just that. It’s not binding, as far as I know, and needs to have resources to back it, including funding to address pipeline leaks in places like Boston. And we need to use those resources in the right way.
It’s a positive step, but not a deep enough cut fast enough. Our best science estimates that we need to cut methane by 45 percent by 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Research at BU, led by Margaret Hendrick [a former postdoctoral associate with the Institute for Sustainable Energy] showed that a handful of leaks, 7 percent, account for an outsized portion of leaked gas—50 percent, which has enormous policy implications. We can patch leaks cost-effectively while focusing financial resources on transitioning to safer and more climate-beneficial, electric-based heating systems. [Those] are necessary to meet our aggressive Massachusetts climate mandates of 50 percent reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
BU Today: Many activists doubt the Glasgow summit will arrest carbon dioxide emissions. Will the gathering nevertheless be a success if real methane cuts result?
Nathan Phillips: Right now, there is huge greenwashing
[whitewashing to make something seem more environmentally friendly than it is] happening at COP26, where the fossil fuel industry is floating what I consider to be poor solutions that keep the industry going, when what we need is a swift transition off it. So you’re hearing a lot about carbon capture and sequestration from combusting methane, or hydrogen derived from fossil methane, which has potentially worse carbon emissions than even just burning the methane directly.
So the pledge of methane reduction is a big deal, but we need to think about reducing methane emissions as part of a strategy to transition off natural gas, rather than as a reason to double down on the fossil energy system of the last century, which cannot meet our climate commitments consistent with climate science. Even if every leak were plugged across the entire process chain.
BU Today: Major methane emitters—Russia, China, India—aren’t taking the pledge. How serious is that setback?
Nathan Phillips: Russia, China, and India not joining is huge, in a bad way for the climate. Not as much for today, but for the coming years. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Russia has the number one gas reserves on the planet, China is number 10, and India is number 23. Moreover, on the consumption side, between them they account for nearly 40 percent of the global population.
There is a massive climate justice issue at play, where countries like India, responsible for a fraction of our global greenhouse emissions, are now facing tough choices about how to transition to the cleanest energy possible. This is why countries like the United States and other countries, who have burned way beyond any concept of a fair share, need to invest in the renewable energy future—both here and in these countries—that the entire globe needs.
Good interview, and such important information delivered in an understandable way for all us non-scientists.
While it’s frustrating in this case to see Russia, China, and India shy away from joining this agreement, I can see why they might shy away considering that they represent 40 percent of the world’s population, and collectively use 23 percent of the world’s natural gas, while the US, at 6 percent of the world’s population, uses nearly 22 percent, almost as much as those three countries combined.
Perhaps those three nations might be more likely join if the commitments to cut emissions, instead of being the same percentage range for all countries, were to better reflect the percent of the world’s population each country represents and emission reduction goals were to reflect that.