Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert Stavins and Harvard climate scientist Daniel Jacob say we’re on the verge of daily worldwide monitoring of the powerful and dangerous greenhouse gas.
Featuring ROBERT STAVINS
FEBRUARY 8, 2023
40 minutes and 35 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert Stavins and Professor Daniel Jacob of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are at the forefront of new efforts to monitor and control methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane didn’t use to seem like such a big deal. It was that other climate gas, the one that was the butt of cow flatulence jokes and that only stayed in the atmosphere for a decade or so. But since important global warming targets are now just seven years away and science has developed a better understanding of both methane’s pervasiveness and its potent role in warming the atmosphere, it’s now very much on the front burner for increasingly concerned climate policymakers. The good news is that the science of monitoring methane emissions has taken huge leaps forward recently, thanks to advances in supercomputing, weather modeling, and satellite imaging, to the point where we could soon have daily real-time monitoring and measuring of methane emissions around the globe. Our two guests are playing an important role in that effort. Robert Stavins is an economist and the director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Project and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. Daniel Jacob was named the world’s top environmental scientist last year by Research.com, and his groundbreaking work has been instrumental in creating methane monitoring systems so precise they can track emissions to a specific company or another individual source—from space. Both say that the need to address the methane issue is urgent and that the countries of the world now have the wherewithal to get methane emissions under control. There are hopeful signs, including a major international agreement called the Global Methane Pledge, but the big question will be whether global leaders have the will to follow through.
Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Programs in Public Policy and in Political Economy and Government, Cochair of the MPP/MBA and MPA/ID/MBA Joint Degree Programs. He is the Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, former Chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Economics Advisory Board, and a member of the editorial councils of scholarly periodicals. His research has examined diverse areas of environmental economics and policy and has appeared in a variety of economics, law, and policy journals, as well as several books. Stavins directed Project 88, a bipartisan effort cochaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz to develop innovative approaches to environmental problems. He has been a consultant to government agencies, international organizations, corporations, and advocacy groups. He holds a BA in philosophy from Northwestern University, an MS in agricultural economics from Cornell, and a PhD in economics from Harvard.
Daniel Jacob is the Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Harvard University. His research covers a wide range of topics in atmospheric chemistry, from air quality to climate change, and has led the development of the GEOS-Chem global 3-D model of atmospheric composition. In 2022, he won both the Best Scientist Award and the Environmental Sciences in United States Leader Award from Research.com as the top environmental scientist in the world. Jacob has also served as a mission scientist on eight NASA aircraft missions around the world and was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2003. Jacob has trained over 100 Ph.D. students and postdocs over the course of his career. In 1994 he was made a Fellow of American Geophysical Union (AGU) and was awarded the James B. Macelwane Medal. He holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering from Caltech.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Communications and Public Affairs is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Daniel Jacob (Intro): We have satellites in space that can observe methane globally every day. So from this, you can quantify emissions from individual countries, certainly on an annual basis. Complimenting this global observing facility, you have the ability to track those plumes from point sources, measure the emissions from individual facilities. This is still a burgeoning activity, but it's going to be developing very intensely over the next two years. You can expect over the next two years to have a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth and measuring those point sources every day. And this is going to be a very exciting development.
Rob Stavins (Intro): Although methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas in terms of radiative forcing per unit emitted, it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. So we're talking on the range of 10 to 20 years in contrast with carbon dioxide, in which case the half-life in the atmosphere is a hundred or more years. So if you were to compare greenhouse gases in terms of their relative contributions, and you did it in terms of what scientists and for that matter, policymakers call a carbon dioxide equivalent basis and you used as the basis for combining them 100 years, then methane a unit emitted now wouldn't look very important. On the other hand, if you look over the next decade and think about the fact that the targets in the United States and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we're looking to the year 2030. We're not looking a hundred years out. Well, then methane is not just important, it's more important.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. Methane didn’t use to be such a big deal. It was that other climate gas, the one that was the butt of cow flatulence jokes and only stayed in the atmosphere for a decade or so. But since the first important global warming targets are now just seven years away, and science has developed a better understanding of both methane’s pervasiveness and its potent role in warming the atmosphere, it’s now very much on the front burner for increasingly concerned climate policymakers. (Pardon the pun.) The good news is that the science of monitoring methane emissions has taken huge leaps forward recently, thanks to advances in supercomputing, weather modeling, and satellite imaging, to the point where we could soon have daily real-time monitoring and measuring of methane emissions around the globe. My two guests today play an important role in that effort. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Rob Stavins is an economist and the director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Project and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. Professor Daniel Jacob of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was named the world’s top environmental scientist last year by Research.com, and his groundbreaking work has been instrumental in creating methane monitoring systems so precise they can track emissions to an individual company or other source from space. Both say that the need to address the methane issue is urgent and that the countries of the world now have the wherewithal to get methane emissions under control. There are hopeful signs, including a major international agreement called the Global Methane Pledge, but the big question will be whether global leaders have the will to follow through.
Ralph Ranalli: Rob, Daniel, welcome to PolicyCast.
Rob Stavins: Thank you. Good to be here.
Daniel Jacob: Thank you.
Ralph Ranalli: So I've been looking forward to this conversation for a while, because Rob, you're an economist and you come at it from the policy side, and Daniel, you're a scientist and you come at it from that perspective. And I think if we've learned anything about addressing climate, it's important to bring multiple perspectives to the table, but especially to bring together good science and sound policy.
So, today we're talking about methane. Methane seems like it's relatively late to the party in terms of the discussion of the factors that go into climate change. But before we talk about those discussions—and the exciting recent advances in the science of monitoring methane that are informing them—I'd like to start with some foundational questions. First of all, from a purely scientific standpoint, what is methane and what is its role in causing planetary warming? And I think Daniel, we should start with you.
Daniel Jacob: Yes, thank you, Ralph. So, methane is a molecule made up of one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. It's a product of biological activity. It's also a product of the same processes that make our fossil fuels. It's submitted to the atmosphere because it's a very volatile molecule and once it's in the atmosphere, it has similar greenhouse properties as CO2—except on steroids. It's far more efficient than CO2 molecule per molecule in terms of driving global warming, and so that has fueled a lot of recent interest in the role of methane.
Ralph Ranalli: And what is its relationship to CO2? They're both greenhouse gases, but there are significant differences between the two of them. Rob, can you talk a little bit about what the differences between CO2 and methane are and why they're significant?
Rob Stavins: Well, an important difference, which is what has led to, as you correctly said, the lack of attention to methane for so long, is that although methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas in terms of radiative forcing per unit emitted, it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. So we're talking in the range of 10 to 20 years in contrast with carbon dioxide, in which case the half-life in the atmosphere is a hundred or more years. On the other hand, if you look over the next decade and think about the fact that the targets in the United States and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we're looking to the year 2030. We're not looking a hundred years out. Well, then methane is not just important, it's more important.
Ralph Ranalli: Right, because those 2030 targets are only seven years away.
Rob Stavins: That's right.
Ralph Ranalli: And methane's going to be there for 10 years, so it is significant in terms of those targets. I can remember it wasn't that long ago that methane was mostly referred to almost in jokey references about cow flatulence and nobody really took it seriously. Did something change to cause that shift in attention towards methane? How did things shift so dramatically in terms of really caring about methane and being concerned about it and urgently needing to do something about it?
Rob Stavins: Well, so I think one of the explanatory factors of the greatly increased attention to methane is sitting right here with Daniel Jacob. Better, much better, measurement and estimation about which you should say something because that's where you've been and others at Harvard have been extremely important.
Ralph Ranalli: Yeah. Daniel, can you talk a little bit about what we've learned recently about methane and how it's changed the conversation?
Daniel Jacob: Yeah, I will. Further, I would like to add to what Rob says about the growing realization of methane as a very important player. I mean, 20, 30 years ago, we used to think of climate change as a problem for the future and so we weren't interested in those 100-year targets. Now we see it more as a problem for the present day, and one that has a lot of urgency. We talk about one and a half degrees of danger, and there's a realization that we're not going to be able to meet such near-term targets without aggressive action on methane. So the other thing about methane and following up on what Rob says about the difficulty of measuring it. In the case of CO2, we know where it's coming from. It's coming from fossil fuel combustion. If you tell me how much coal and oil and gas your consuming, then I can tell you how much CO2 you're emitting.
Methane is a much more complicated ledger, because the sources of methane are associated with biology, they're associated with leaks, which are very much more difficult to quantify. Once we figure out the source of methane, it may actually be easier to take action on methane than on CO2 because we can plug those leaks, we can modify the biology, and that may be much easier than weaning our cells from fossil fuels in the short term of a... We have to do this definitely in the longer term. And so this has driven a lot of interest in methane and our ability, our recent ability to be able to observe methane from satellites, and so to look everywhere in the world where methane is being emitted, I think it has been transformative in terms of the ability to bring to the conversation policy options for reducing methane.
Ralph Ranalli: The satellite science is fascinating because while it really starts with those improved satellite observations, that’s just the beginning and there’s a lot more to it, but I want to hold that thought for a little bit. First I’d like to talk about what you said is the good news about methane, which is that it may be actionable in a way that is much harder with CO2. I’ve read that two thirds of the methane sources are from human activity including livestock, cattle, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, coal mines, oil and gas operations, rice patties. On balance do you think the news on methane, Rob, is good or bad? It's an urgent problem, but one we can do something about?
Rob Stavins: Well, one of the reasons that there's sort of good news here is in terms of doing something about it. If you think about major sources in many countries in the world, not all, which is the oil and gas industry, then in fact there's a big difference between methane and carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases. That is CO2 for the most part, which does not in and of itself present to the market as a marketable good. Whereas methane is a major constituent of natural gas is a marketable good and therefore we’re repairing leaks. Although there's a cost in terms of monitoring and repairing leaks, for instance, from wellheads and pipelines—that's actually a marketable product for those same companies and therefore it can be positive in their bottom lines on net. So that's a significant difference that's important, and that's one source of confidence that at least in that sector, the oil and gas sector, that we may be able to see some real progress.
Ralph Ranalli: And I was interested to learn as I was researching this that, Daniel, you said that there's really not that much difference chemically between methane and natural gas. They’re basically 95% chemically the same, which is interesting because it doesn't seem to fit the popular conception that methane is sort of this swamp gas and then on the other there’s so-called clean burning natural gas, which has received a big boost from marketing. Does the fact that they're so chemically similar... Is that just an interesting bit of trivia or does that matter?
Daniel Jacob: Is it trivial? Yeah, natural gas is about 90% methane. Yeah, it's interesting that natural gas is being sold to the public as this clean alternative for energy or as this transition energy. I'm not sure that people make the link between that and the methane that's coming from wetlands, but I think it's just maybe a matter of education.
Rob Stavins: But I think that link is being made better now than it was formerly because formerly, just even going back a few years, many people, myself included, would in fact have referred to natural gas as a bridge fuel. It would look at for countries like the United States, for countries like China, which has a high reliance on coal, okay, major retention to phasing out coal. And of course in the United States, coal consumption has decreased because of low prices of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing. And so we saw that as a positive step because we were looking at methane only in terms of the burning of the natural gas and per unit of electricity generated by methane is a lot better than coal. We weren't looking at it, and I'm including myself, we weren't looking at it in terms of the full life cycle of methane leaking or otherwise being emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the process of producing, delivering and using natural gas. And then in terms of radiative forcing particularly over the short term, and the world is the short term, that's where we all live. It's vastly more important now.
Ralph Ranalli: You’ve both been to the recent UN Climate conferences, COP 26 and COP 27, and there has been some significant movement on methane. There was the global methane pledge at COP 26 in Scotland, where a hundred countries signed on. And then just recently at COP 27 in Egypt, another approximately 50 countries I believe signed on. That's the good news. I think the bad news is that India and China still are not signed on to the pledge.
Rob Stavins: That's right.
Ralph Ranalli: And they are the two biggest emitters, and Russia also has not signed on to the pledge. Rob, I think you've said that unlike the Paris Accord, it's also the kind of side agreement that doesn't necessarily carry the same enforcement weight as something like the Paris Accord. What's your prognosis on how successful the Global Methane pledge can be and what its impact can be?
Rob Stavins: Well, so one thing that we should acknowledge is that, over time in this world of international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, going back to 1992 and then all the way to the present, that the time period that led up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and then the time period that led up even to the Paris Agreement in 2015. That was a time at which the major action on climate change under the UNFCCC and the negotiations were in the negotiations themselves, and then there were these sideshows. What we've increasingly found over the last few years, and this was certainly true in Sharm El Sheikh, where Daniel Jacob and I were together, that those sideshows are part of what's a three-ring circus and one of those rings of the circus are the negotiations. But all these other aspects, including all sorts of private industry consortia, are increasingly important.
And the Global Methane Pledge is one of those, and it's potentially quite important. What I'm looking forward to seeing is whether or not the pledges on methane from the individual countries find their ways into the pledges under the Paris Agreement, which are called nationally determined contributions or NDCs. It's not because those have a greater enforcement mechanism in terms quantitatively, but rather because of the fact that they have some weight internationally. And whether that's going to happen, we'll see. I mean, it's begun to happen, but there's a lot more that can take place over the next few years.
Daniel Jacob: May I follow up with a question for Rob?
Ralph Ranalli: Oh, sure.
Daniel Jacob: Yeah, so the global methane pledges for a 30% decrease of methane emissions by 2030 collectively for the signatories. So if it's collectively, what does this mean then in terms of a strategy or enforcement?
Rob Stavins: So it is purely voluntary, first of all. And the pledge is a collective one. Were it not a collective one, there would not be a Global Methane Pledge. They wouldn't have been able to get this set of countries to sign on. So it's aspirational. The NDCs are very different than that because each country is stating what it's going to do. On the other hand, when it states what it's going to do, that quantitative statement for the year 2030, some CO2, some methane, whatever, is itself not legally binding under international law. What's binding under international law is the Paris Agreement itself, which each country says every five years will come up with a new and improved NDC. That's binding under international law. I don't think that it's important that the NDCs are not binding under international law themselves. The Kyoto Protocol targets were, and what happened when it came pushed to shove and countries had to abide?
Well, the United States never ratified. Japan dropped out, Australia dropped out, Russia dropped out. What was left was the European Union and New Zealand; that's who stayed in the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Paris Agreement, where they are binding under law is domestic law, because at least in the representative democracies, those countries under the Paris Agreement, they're saying what I think my country, my government, is going to accomplish within our borders. And we're going to put in place laws and regulations in order to achieve that, which the United States has done through essentially the Inflation Reduction Act, largely. That then is binding under domestic law because if they don't achieve it, they're going to get sued by the environmental advocacy organizations. So the differences are subtle but, essentially, I would say that if the methane targets from individual countries can move into the NDCs under the Paris Agreement, I'll have more confidence that they're going to make a difference.
Ralph Ranalli: Right.
Rob Stavins: Did that answer your question?
Ralph Ranalli: So moving on from the UN Climate Conference, there was also a little bit of progress on methane, I believe, in the Inflation Reduction Act where it included a charge on methane emissions from specific ties from—this is going to be a tongue twister—from specific types of facilities in the petroleum and natural gas industry that under current regulations are already required to report their greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA. And the Congressional Research Service called it the first time the U.S. has levied a direct charge on greenhouse gas emissions. Were you encouraged by that? Is that a significant step forward? A small step forward? Put that into context for us.
Rob Stavins: Well, it's encouraging in the United States in terms of accomplishing any kind of policy on climate change. But to say it's encouraging in the U.S. context, since not much has been accomplished, means it doesn't take much for it to be encouraging. That said, for 20 years, economists like myself have been arguing in favor of putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, either through a carbon tax or a CO2 cap and trade system. That has proven to be politically infeasible going back to the last serious try, which was during the Obama administration when a legislation passed the House of Representatives, the Waxman-Markey Bill, but then never got a real hearing in the Senate.
So economists and many other policy wonks are quite thrilled about the fact that there is, actually, this fee on methane emissions within the Inflation Reduction Act, because it could potentially serve as a model for going forward. Take note of the fact that we don't yet really know what the methane fee is going to apply to. We have to see the final regulations on this. Apparently the methane fee will apply to emissions which are above the level that is limited by regulations. So if a company is fully in compliance with regulations, then they wouldn't be facing a methane fee at all.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. Speaking of cap and trade, Daniel, you were working on acid fog and acid rain back in the 1980s under George H.W. Bush, who was the Republican who declared himself the environmental president. And that resulted in the Sulfur Dioxide Allowance-Trading program that was established under the Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments. And that was the world's first large scale pollutant cap and trade system. My question to you, Daniel, is as a scientist, thinking back to then and thinking to now, does it seem easier then to translate science into policy than it is now?
Daniel Jacob: Well, when I was doing my PhD in the early 1980s, acid rain, as you point out, was a very hot topic. And President Ronald Reagan kept saying more research is needed for before anything could be done. So it seemed that it was very difficult at a time to translate research into policy, and it all has to do with what government is being voted in. And as you pointed out, George H.W. Bush came into office calling himself the environmental president, which is amazing to imagine a Republican saying this. One thing that's a little frustrating with our environmental policy in the U.S. right now, it's so dependent on which party is in power. Right now, it seems like there's a hunger on the policy side for better science that could allow better definition and implementation of those new EPA regulations. But then who knows what's going to happen as the future administration? So it's a shame really, that the environment is such a political football in the United States.
Rob Stavins: I mean, it's striking that not only has it become more difficult to translate science, good science, into sound public policy, but more difficult, if not impossible, to translate good science and economics into public policy. So back at the time in the George H.W. Bush administration, when I was a new assistant professor at the Kennedy School, I worked very closely with the White House in the development of what turned out to be the SO2 allowance-trading system. I was not part of the White House, but I was down at the White House every week working on it. And what is almost shocking for students now to hear is that when the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which had in a Title IV as you correctly said, the SO2 allowance-trading system, that when that passed the House of Representatives, it was with approximately, as I recall, 92/93% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans.
Ralph Ranalli: Wow.
Rob Stavins: That was the difference. And then you fast forward to the Obama administration when they were looking at the CO2 cap and trade system, and it was something like 88, 89, 90% of Democrats and something like 3% of Republicans, all of whom were then either primaried out of office or voted out of office in the subsequent election.
Ralph Ranalli: Yeah, I wanted to have you expand just a little bit on these political headwinds because it just seems like every day there comes something new. People are running out and they're hugging their gas stoves now because of some off-handed remark that some commissioner from the U.S. Product Safety Commission made the other day. And then you have legislators in Wyoming filing legislation to phase out electric cars by 2035. It seems a little bit absurd, these sort of childing demonstrations of obstinacy and how actual life or death climate issues have been pulled into the so-called culture wars. But in the real world of politics and policy, how much can you get done walking into these prevailing headwinds?
Daniel Jacob: So one thing I think that has changed over the past few decades is the position of industry with regard to environmental regulations. Well, you see right now industry is actually pretty supportive about methane emission regulations. They think that they can do it on their own, but they're still sort of friendly and on board with the need to reduce those emissions. So I think that's a positive development. One big difficulty that we have with methane compared to the case of SO2 is that in the case of SO2, we know where it's coming from and we know the emissions very well. So then it becomes simply a matter of political will. The technology is there. In the case of methane, you went through that long list of different human sources, emissions of methane, so which one is more important than the others? How is it that you would control... And is one easier to control than the other? These are difficult questions that we did not have in the case of the S02 emission discussions.
Rob Stavins: Yeah, so I think people often think that the private industry is unilaterally opposed and obstructionist in terms of climate change policy. If you looked at the coal industry for which climate policy is essentially an existential issue, then yes, they are unilaterally opposed and it's understandable why they're unilaterally opposed. It's not the case in the oil and gas industry. And if you go beyond the oil and gas industry into manufacturing and other aspects of the economy, in fact, some sectors are highly disposed to support climate policy because economically, financially it can actually be beneficial for them. We see that reflected regularly in the debates and in the lobbying. It’s essentially those sectors of the economy which benefit from a higher price of fuel, a higher price of energy, namely the producers of energy consuming durable goods. So who's that's going to be? It's going to be General Electric, Boeing, Airbus, they do very well because then the current stock becomes prematurely obsolete. You want to buy the new aircraft because the new aircraft for non-policy reasons are becoming systematically more efficient with lighter weight materials and the construction of the aircraft. They're very supportive, but it's the consumers of energy consuming durable goods, they're in a very different situation because it is a cost increase for them.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. So now I'd like to turn to the work you've been doing lately and the advancements that have been made in satellite observations. This is work that does the really important job of helping us get a handle on how much and where the methane is coming from. But I believe we've been using satellites to observe methane for a couple of decades now—what can we do now that we couldn't do then?
Daniel Jacob: That's a very good question. So one thing that we can do now is observe individual point sources that may be very important actors in the total methane emissions, but that we were not able to resolve with the older satellites that had either infrequent sampling or very coarse pixels. Now we can look at the plumes of individual facilities and we can detect whether a facility is in what we call a super-emitting mode, that is, emitting far more than it advertises and representing therefore an important component of the total methane emissions. One reason why this is so important is because then it enables you to take action. So when you are seeing a huge source of methane, say associated with an unlit flare, then you can go to the company and say, "Hey, your flare there is not working right or any other equipment failure." You can also identify bad actors that may be venting methane deliberately and then take action against them. The point is that you can take prompt action that we couldn't take before.
Ralph Ranalli: So you recently published a paper called “Satellite Quantification of Methane Emissions and Oil and Gas Methane Intensities from Individual Countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Implications for Climate Action.” That's quite a mouthful. Can you give me some examples of what you found in that research and why it's important?
Daniel Jacob: Yes, thank you. So we analyzed 23 countries in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of the efficiency of their oil and gas industry with regard to methane emissions. Of course, this is a very big region for oil and gas around the globe. And what we found is that the emissions of methane per unit of production varied by orders of magnitude between countries, where some countries had very clean operations with regard to methane emissions: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE. Other countries were absolute disasters, I should say, like Iraq and Algeria. The absolute disasters really had to do with very old infrastructure, and very poorly managed procedures for taking the gas to market. What we find in the countries that have very efficient procedures is that they have a relatively small number of very large and modern facilities. So the point is that it's possible for the oil and gas industry to be much, much cleaner than it presently is with regard to methane emissions. That's something that we learned from that study.
As a side note, I should say that I sometimes get into trouble when I talk about making oil and gas industry cleaner with regard to methane emission because say, well, if we do that, then we allow the oil and gas industry to survive longer. And maybe this has to do with the oil and gas willingness to say, "Oh yeah, let's go after methane emissions." Because if you bring down methane emissions, then oil and gas companies will say, "Hey, look, we're clean. Well, but we're still emitting CO2." So it's a complicated debate.
Ralph Ranalli: Rob.
Rob Stavins: Although companies may not be emitting CO2, but you mean the consumers of their products when they burn the stuff?
Daniel Jacob: Yeah.
Rob Stavins: Yeah, true.
Ralph Ranalli: Rob, what does that do for a response when you have that kind of granularity, where you can identify differences between countries and differences even more granular between fields and between companies within countries and regions? What does that allow you to do from a policy and a response standpoint?
Rob Stavins: Well, at a first level, it's extremely important when you're talking about a jurisdiction that itself has laws and regulations which are enforced, that are enforceable and enforced. So an example of that would be the United States, the European Union. Essentially the advanced democracies are the first ones I would think about because of what Daniel and his group are doing—including being able to now get to a level of granularity, looking at individual states. That could be exceptionally important within the U.S. If we're looking at some of the developing countries, then the big issue is going to be political will. Now, political will also matters here, as we were talking about just a few minutes ago. But there are laws and regulations that are in place or regulations that are being promulgated. But in those developing countries, what's going to matter a great deal is political will.
My colleagues in the world of political science, as opposed to economics, they refer to what they think of as sometimes a powerful mechanism, they refer to as naming and shaming. And there's a degree to which that's what the Global Methane Pledge eventually will do, and certainly the NDCs under the Paris Agreement. That's what the structure of the Paris Agreement may really be about is countries feeling that they need to state an ambitious NDC, which they've done. Not sufficiently ambitious to comply with 1.5 degrees centigrade, but tremendously different than the trajectory where we were on earlier globally. And that may be a way forward because originally you state that, and then there are these mechanisms within the Paris Agreement that there will be a comparison of your NDC with what you've actually accommodated. If you haven't accomplished it, are you going to get a punishment in terms of loss of state highway funds as could happen in the U.S.? No. Are you going to get slap on the hand? Perhaps not. But what you will get is the naming and shaming.
Ralph Ranalli: So I did want to return back to you, Daniel, because I was fascinated by reading about the science of this more accurate satellite observation capability that we have now. And it's not just that we have better satellites, it's that there's a whole lot of analysis and modeling that has to be done after you get the satellite data because the atmosphere moves, the gas moves, so you have to sort of reverse engineer where it's coming from. Can you tell me a little bit about that process and the advancements that have been made there?
Daniel Jacob: Yes. So when you observe a methane plume, you have to figure out where it's coming from. Now it's been transported by the wind, and you have some observations for this and some data for this. But then you have to take this information and put it in reverse. That is instead of going from the point of the emission to the point of observation, you have to do what we call an inversion, where you go from the point of observation to inferring the emission. The statistics of doing this are fairly complicated, and also you need to have a good meteorological model. One thing that we have been able to do over the past two decades is greatly improve our capability to do that. This is partly because of increasing computational resources, and it's also because a lot of smart people thinking about better way of doing this and the mathematics behind it.
Ralph Ranalli: That's great. So if we could reach a state of continuously monitoring methane emissions worldwide in real time, what kind of a difference would that make?
Daniel Jacob: I would say we're already there. We have satellites in space that can observe methane globally every day. So from this, you can quantify emissions from individual countries, certainly on an annual basis and contribute in this manner to monitoring the success towards the NDCs that Rob was talking about. Complimenting this global observing facility, you have the ability to track those plumes from point sources, measure the emissions from individual facilities. This is still a burgeoning activity, but it's going to be developing very intensely over the next two years. You can expect over the next two years to have a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth and measuring those point sources every day. And this is going to be a very exciting development.
Ralph Ranalli: So this question's for both of you. What would your recommendations be to PolicyCast listeners about what they can do to help this effort on responding to methane? Anything from what they can do in their everyday lives, to what they can talk to about their legislators, the kind of things they can advocate for legislatively, the consumer choices they make. What can help the average person move the needle to the extent that they can?
Rob Stavins: Well, I'd say two things occur to me. The first one is to vote. Clearly in this situation of the United States where we have this bimodal distribution of views on so many issues and where climate change has become part of the culture wars; it really has. As we said, it's not private industry versus environmental advocacy groups. It's Republicans versus Democrats, and of course, moderate Republicans, George H.W. Bush, what we used to call Country Club Republicans. Moderate Republicans have essentially become extinct, and the party as is well known, has been taken over by the extreme far right wing. So what's really needed, the first thing is voting. The other is, I would say even with Democratic legislators who may be amenable and receptive to messages, is to argue to them to incorporate in laws and regulations, the ability to utilize the evidence produced by work such as Daniel's for purposes of monitoring enforcement.
So what I'm referring to is the fact that for existing EPA regulations for mainly what EPA does, which is largely in cancer protection, cancer prevention agency for localized air pollutants, there are monitors, right? They're right there, they're monitors, particularly in areas that are not in full compliance. And then for the SO2 allowance trading program where you're talking about before, the precursor of acid rain, there's continuous emissions monitoring at the top of stacks, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the case of methane, what's really promising from my view as an economist and as a policy analyst, is the ability to be able to come up with precise, reliable estimates of methane emissions through this inversion process, statistical estimation based upon satellite imagery. I would like to see that incorporated, and that's the sort of thing that letters to your congressmen and then eventually legislation or regulation can help with.
Ralph Ranalli: Daniel, I'll let you have the last word on what people can do to help this effort along.
Daniel Jacob: Oh, well, I will certainly echo what Rob said about voting. It's interesting to hear about what personal action we can take, and oftentimes the personal action that we can take towards addressing climate change is kind of in a feel-good category, but it doesn't really move the needle. On the other hand, it makes us think about what we are doing and how it impacts the environment. So things like trying to minimize the amount of trash that you generate, knowing that this trash is going to go to a landfill and is going to emit methane. Is it going to have other harmful effects on the environment? Think about your carbon footprint. It's not so much for personal action that you will take, but more of the effect that you're thinking about it and then you'll think about voting in that regard. Yes.
Ralph Ranalli: That's great.
Rob Stavins: I mean, there's an interesting trade off that Daniel's certainly aware of. It's implicit in what he just said, and that is that individuals want to do something about it. Back when 20 years ago when individuals wanted to do something for the environment, that's what brought about essentially curbside recycling. Which for a period of time, the curbside recycling, we're going to the exact same destinations no matter which bin it went into, but people felt better about it. But that's not always the case, and it's no longer the case that that's happening. But there's a trade-off because on the one hand, reducing your meat consumption, generating less waste, all the things that we as individuals can do actually in aggregate do make a difference.
On the other hand, there's the trade-off, which is that it may make you think that this is the way you're going to have an effect as opposed to voting, as opposed to sending a hundred dollars to the Environmental Defense Fund, or for that matter, making a contribution to research at Harvard University, I have to mention. And those trade-offs can sometimes make people think they're having an effect that's less than it could otherwise be.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, that's great. So I guess the takeaway is think big and think small at the same time. So before we close, I'd definitely like to recommend Rob's podcast, Environmental Insights, which is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, of which Rob is the director. And Rob Stavins, Daniel Jacob, thank you very much for being here.
Daniel Jacob: Thank you so much.
Rob Stavins: It's been a pleasure.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. We invite you to join us for another great conversation on our next episode and we urge you to please visit the main HKS website in the coming weeks for a major new announcement about the Kennedy School’s efforts to help curb methane emissions. If you have a feedback or a question about our podcast, please send us an email at PolicyCast at h-k-s dot Harvard dot e-d-u. And until next time, remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.