Removing Methane from the Atmosphere: New Sabin Report on Atmospheric Methane Destruction via Oxidation Enhancement – Climate Law Blog

A highly potent greenhouse gas, methane makes a significant contribution to climate change, but has historically received relatively little attention in climate mitigation discussions. That is now beginning to change. In addition to investigating new ways to control methane emissions, scientists are also researching the possibility of removing methane already in the atmosphere. Significantly more work is needed to determine whether that is possible and the impacts it might have. Conducting the necessary research, and moving ahead with deployment (if that’s ultimately deemed appropriate), could raise a host of legal issues. Those issues are explored in a new report by researchers at the Sabin Center, Removing Methane via Atmospheric Oxidation Enhancement: The Legal Landscape. The report analyzes the international and U.S. laws governing methane removal via atmospheric oxidation enhancement (AOE). Subsequent reports will focus on other atmosphere methane removal approaches.

AOE is still in very early stages of development, and significantly more research is required to fully evaluate its efficacy and impacts (both positive and negative). But legal considerations could have a major bearing on whether, when, where, and how AOE research and any subsequent deployment can take place. The Sabin Center’s new paper maps and analyzes the applicable legal frameworks, both at the international level and domestically in the U.S.

This blog post outlines the climate impact of atmospheric methane, discusses the promise of AOE as a technique for reducing atmospheric methane, and describes the Sabin Center’s new report assessing the legal landscape governing AOE projects in the United States.

Why is Atmospheric Methane Removal Important?

In order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must reach net-zero in the second half of this century and potentially go net negative shortly thereafter. The global community is not currently on track to achieve that goal. This, together with the increasingly visible impacts of climate change, has prompted growing interest in removing GHGs directly from the atmosphere. While GHG removal cannot substitute for rapid and deep emissions cuts, it could help to offset residual emissions from hard-to-abate sectors and potentially deliver net negative emissions later in the century.

To date, efforts to advance GHG removal have primarily focused on developing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques, but another GHG removal approach—atmospheric methane removal (AMR)—is now also beginning to receive attention. Removing methane from the atmosphere could bring significant climate benefits. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is emitted in smaller quantities, and has a shorter atmospheric life, but methane has a much higher global warming potential. On a pound-for-pound basis, methane traps 86 times more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than the same amount of carbon dioxide would in the first 20 years after it is released and 34 times more heat than carbon dioxide over 100 years. As a result, according to the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for about 30% of the rise of global temperatures since the industrial revolution.

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