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Big potential in this climate solution

Billions of dollars of investment have gone into developing carbon capture technologies and researchers at Stanford want to see similar sums mobilised to pioneer methane removing technologies.

There is a strong case for this. Every year one million premature deaths are caused by high concentrations of tropospheric ozone resulting from methane emissions. Another major problem is that after its release methane is 81 times more potent at warming temperatures over 20 years than carbon dioxide is, and around 27 times more over a century. What the Stanford research shows is that around 50,000 of these deaths could be prevented annually, and surface temperatures could be cut by 0.21 degrees Celsius by removing ‘three years-worth of human-caused emissions of the potent greenhouse gas’.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also revealed that methane is responsible for around half of the 1.0 degree Celsius ‘net rise in global average temperature since the pre-industrial era’.

The time is ripe to invest in methane removal technologies.

Rob Jackson

Using a new model developed by the UK weather service, the Met Office, researchers also charted a range of different scenarios, where a high emissions scenario – with a drop of 40% in methane emissions by 2050 – showed temperatures could fall by 0.4 degrees Celsius, and a low emissions scenario, with temperatures peaking this century, giving a 1 degree drop.

“Carbon dioxide removal has received billions of dollars of investments, with dozens of companies formed,” said Rob Jackson, Stanford Professor of Energy and Environment. “We need similar commitments for methane removal.”

The Stanford team admits it won’t be easy to create and scale innovations that can do the job but say the potential impact such technologies could have merits a serious injection of new funding in research and development.

Agriculture is one of the main culprits of human-driven methane emissions, and Germany’s Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology is pioneering a system to potty train cows to allow waste to be ‘collected and treated’. It is a clever idea, but the introduction of methane removing technologies could trigger a real paradigm shift in cleaning this up.

And the financial upside is huge, according to the Stanford researchers. They point to the $100 plus market value price expected this century for each tonne of carbon, and say the equivalent amount of methane removal would be worth nearly 30 times this.

Although methane’s extremely low concentration levels make it difficult to capture, there are already technologies, including crystalline materials called zeolites that are showing potential for ‘soaking up the gas’. And the researchers are now calling for ‘increased research into these technologies’ cost, efficiency, scaling and energy requirements, potential social barriers to deployment, co-benefits and possible negative by-products’.

The research paper, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, reveals the technologies that hold potential for methane capture, as well as the frameworks and conditions that could accelerate their delivery.

It is an opportunity and call to action for innovators with the skills and vision to play a part in building a methane capture industry.

And demands for this industry grew louder this month when America and the European Union announced the Global Methane Pledge, which calls on countries to sign up to commitments that can contribute to a reduction in methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. The initiative will be officially launched at COP26 in Scotland this November.

Carbon capture

The growing carbon capture ecosystem offers some lessons on how this could be done, with the Stanford paper exploring comparisons between the two. Earlier this month the switching on of the Orca plant in Iceland was hailed as a ‘milestone in the direct air capture industry’ by Jan Wurzbacher, co-CEO and co-founder of Climeworks, the company, along with Carbfix that launched the facility.

“With this success, we are prepared to rapidly ramp up our capacity in the next years. Achieving global net-zero emissions is still a long way to go, but with Orca, we believe that Climeworks has taken one significant step closer to achieving that goal,” he said.

There has also been a growth in the supporting infrastructure around this, with China launching the world’s largest carbon market in the summer.

“As China launches the world’s largest carbon market, there is a need for new tools that can be used to strengthen this market to drive greater emissions reductions,” Al Gore said.

A sentiment echoed last year by researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Girona, ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge.

“By 2050, the world needs to be carbon neutral – taking out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as it puts in. To this end, a CO2 removal industry needs to be rapidly scaled up, and that begins now, with countries looking at their responsibilities and their capacity to meet any quotas,” said the report’s co-lead author Dr Carlos Pozo, from the University of Girona. “There are technological solutions ready to be deployed. Now it is time for international agreements to get the ball rolling so we can start making serious progress towards our climate goals.”  

Carbon capture is permanently removing CO₂ from the air now, it is no longer a theory, and though expensive and no silver bullet, it could pave the way for further innovations like methane capture that can further impact the fight against climate change.

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Written By

Executive Producer of the Inside Ideas podcast, writer on sustainability issues, and social media content creator.

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