SOME PROPOSED SOLUTIONS for reducing global methane emissions might sound silly at first—such as putting masks on cows so that their burps can’t escape into the atmosphere. But Claire Henly MPP 2021 says the problem with the greenhouse gas is urgent and serious.

“Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, though it typically gets much less attention,” says Henly, a White House fellow in the office of the special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry. “But a lot of really interesting work is happening in methane, including technical advancements.”

Although it breaks down much faster in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane is 84 times as powerful in terms of trapping heat. That means cutting methane emissions is the fastest and most effective way to slow global warming in the near term, according to a recent United Nations report. The report also said that methane emissions could be almost halved by 2030 using mostly existing technology. That’s why a significant part of Henly’s White House fellowship is working on the Global Methane Pledge, a worldwide diplomatic effort to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

At the beginning of the one-year fellowship, Henly says, her efforts were focused on recruiting countries to the pledge, culminating in a trip last November to COP 26 (the United Nations’ 2021 conference for the 197 countries that signed on to the 1992 Paris Agreement on climate). “We had a big event where President Biden and [European Commission President Ursula] von der Leyen launched the pledge,” she says. “It was really exciting.”

At the launch, 100 countries joined the pledge, representing nearly 50% of global methane emissions and over 70% of global GDP. Top 10 emitters who joined up include Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. China, India, and Russia have not joined, however.

Claire Henly in a factory on a recent trip to Vietnam with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry
Claire Henly in a factory on a recent trip to Vietnam with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.

The Biden administration has announced new measures aimed at reducing global methane emissions in the United States by 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. President Biden has also reinstated an Environmental Protection Agency rule (which was repealed by Donald Trump) that regulates leak detection and repair in the oil industry and applied it to new operations in gas as well, including the production of natural gas as a byproduct of oil production. Other new rules will require companies to oversee and inspect 3 million miles of pipelines and transmission lines. The oil and gas industry is estimated to be responsible for 30% of methane emissions in the United States. The other major sources of methane are municipal landfills, thousands of abandoned oil wells and coal mines, and agriculture.

Henly says that the office of the special envoy is essentially the U.S. government’s climate diplomacy operation. Coming out of the Kennedy School, she applied for a White House fellowship and was assigned to Kerry’s team. “I did a bunch of interviews,” she says. “It’s run sort of like a medical school match, where you rate the different offices and they rate you and then you match with an office.”

Henly’s focus on climate and the environment is largely a product of her work and life experience before HKS. Born in New York City to an Australian mother, she and her family moved to Melbourne when she was very young. Australia is a major exporter of coal and gas—commodity exports make up roughly 25% of its gross domestic product—and Henly grew up curious about the environment and the country’s role in polluting it.

She stayed curious even after she returned to the United States to attend Yale University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering (and served as captain of the women’s ultimate frisbee team). For one of her summer internships, she returned to Australia to work for a large mining company and was assigned to a giant iron-ore strip mine where huge earthmoving machines were essentially dismantling a mountain for its component parts.

“You understand why we do it [strip mining],” Henly says, “and it’s this marvel of human ingenuity, how we’ve created this whole industry to power our gadgets and refrigerate food. That’s been such a benefit in terms of quality of life. But then I saw what we’re actually doing—stripping mountains and burning this awful substance [coal] and polluting our air and water—and it really didn’t make sense to me. That’s when I got excited about renewable energy.”

Henly says she never intended to work in the mining industry. That internship was more representative of one of her character traits: an intense curiosity to see how things work from the inside. “I’ll just get curious about how something works,” she says. “How does an organization work? What do they do? What are the people there like? What motivates them? In a way this fellowship is a similar thing. I’m asking myself, ‘OK, how does government really work?’”

Another personal trait, she says, is feeling that she should be doing something about problems she sees in the world. That led her to cofound a startup, Red Ox Systems, with a classmate right out of Yale. The company, which worked to commercialize a new wastewater treatment technology, won six start-up awards, including one from the National Science Foundation.

“I think what happens is I get frustrated by something and say to myself, ‘This is not working,’” Henly says. “And then I think, in part because I’ve been granted an incredible amount of privilege and access to resources and access to education, I can and should do something about it.”

After founding Red Ox, Henly moved to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based global organization focused on the renewable energy transition, where she underwent rigorous training in how to be a nonprofit consultant. Her work there included consulting with the Chinese government on the country’s carbon-peaking strategy (how a country gets to a pivot point where its carbon emissions no longer increase but instead start to decline) and a year advising the government of Rwanda on increasing access to electricity in rural areas through off-grid solar-power generation and electric mini-grids.

“I think what happens is I get frustrated by something and say to myself, ‘This is not working.’ And then I think ... I can and should do something about it.”

Claire Henly

Henly says she gradually came to realize that government was where the important decisions were being made, and that was the next frontier she wanted to explore. So she enrolled at the Kennedy School, first making a stop in Boston City Hall to work on climate-resilience strategies for coastal South Boston as a summer fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

“I was curious about government,” she says. “And I wanted to take a breath from working so that I could improve myself and become more capable.”

An HKS class that made a particular impact on her was Ronald Heifetz’s course on leadership. Heifetz, the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership, “gave me a new perspective on work and on myself,” she says. “That was an incredible learning experience. The first course is really focused on systems. But the way that my mind tends to work is through people. I think about individuals—their backstories, their motivations, their moods—and I use those kinds of inputs to think about why someone is making a decision. It’s much less natural for me to think about the system, and it was really helpful in that first class to be reminded that this bigger macro system is also influencing and shaping leadership challenges and issues.”

Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy Khalil Muhammad’s class on systemic racism in the United States was also a game changer for Henly. “It was so helpful to have that lens on public policy,” she says. “It’s something that’s forgotten, and race and racism are in so many ways the foundation of American government and baked into so many American policies. So it was an absolutely critical part of my time at the Kennedy School.”

Attending graduate school during COVID wasn’t ideal—Henly estimates that 75% of her learning was done remotely—but in some ways it contributed to helping her bond with classmates through their shared adversity. Overall, she says, earning her master’s was a good way to move forward during an uncertain time. “I’m happy that I kept going,” she says. “The pandemic put everyone’s life on hold a little bit, so I felt like I was at least making progress.”

Now Henly is applying the skills she learned at HKS to making sure that the Global Methane Pledge moves forward. Her current work involves three areas: persuading international development banks and other funders to support the pledge; advancing research and development in methane-reduction technology; and studying how various countries that have signed on to the pledge can adapt their agricultural sectors to emit less methane.

The third area involves meeting with experts at agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development to find out what resources are available and which specific strategies might work for a particular country. She recently traveled with Special Envoy John Kerry to Vietnam, which is the world’s fifth-largest producer of rice. When rice paddies are flooded, water blocks oxygen from penetrating the soil and creates ideal conditions for methane-producing bacteria. Worldwide, rice cultivation is estimated to produce 7% of global methane emissions, but techniques such as alternately flooding fields and letting them drain can reduce bacterial buildup.

Visiting Vietnam with Kerry, who has been deeply involved in the country since fighting in—and then advocating against—the Vietnam War, “was fascinating on so many levels,” Henly says. “There is a lot of history at play even in something as technical as methane emissions.”

“A lot of really exciting stuff” is happening in methane-reduction technology, she says. That includes work on methane oxidation—a process that uses bacteria to break methane down into other compounds such as carbon dioxide and water—and, yes, even masks for cows. As far-fetched as it may sound, Cargill Corporation, one of the largest privately held companies in the world, is working with a UK start-up to develop a mask that can break down the methane in cow burps and exhalations before it is released into the atmosphere. “That same technology could be put in an air-handling system at a dairy facility,” Henly says.

“I think now is a really interesting time to be doing climate work in the government,” she says. “This year and probably the next few years, a lot of good work will be done at the federal level. It’s an exciting time.”

Banner image: Claire Henly photographed in Washington, D.C.

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