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R&D Needed for Removing Methane from the Atmosphere


Background note

Learning how to remove methane from the atmosphere would complement strategies to mitigate methane emissions from anthropogenic sources. Methane removal technologies would be especially important because around 40% of atmospheric methane originates from natural sources, and because some anthropogenic emissions are difficult to reduce. Natural methane emissions come primarily from wetlands, but also, increasingly, from thawing permafrost, and there is a risk of high-impact emissions from undersea methane hydrates. Although these emissions come from natural sources they are enhanced by global warming, and as warming accelerates these emissions will likely continue to grow.

Both mitigation and removal technologies would provide crucial levers in the struggle to slow warming rapidly enough to limit irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change. Indeed, reducing methane concentrations is the most effective way to rapidly limit warming. A new modeling study by a Stanford University-led team calculates that removing around three years’ worth of human-caused methane emissions would reduce warming by 0.21 ºC, two orders of magnitude greater than the temperature reductions from removing the same amount of CO2 (1 petagram). These results compare with the 2021 Global Methane Assessment, which concluded that reducing anthropogenic methane emissions by 45% could avoid nearly 0.3 ºC of warming by 2045.

In April 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced a $35 million program to reduce methane emissions in the oil, gas, and coal sectors. In developing this program, ARPA-E recognized the need for further research on methane capture in parallel with efforts to capture CO2. While removing methane could provide more avoided warming than removing the same amount of CO2, the fact that methane is 600 times more diluted than CO2 in the general atmosphere presents its own challenge. Since 2003, studies have highlighted two potential pathways for research into anthropogenic methane removal: catalytic oxidation and methanotrophic bacterial filtration. Preventing natural methane formation is an additional pathway.

To learn more, see IGSD Background Note on Methane Removal; R&D needed for removing methane from the atmosphere, September 2021.