SDGs and ESG

Methane: A Deadly Climate Problem with a Simple Solution

Landfills are an important part of dealing with methane and climate change. Photo Source: Vianet Ramos - ADB

Waste-to-energy projects, particularly those dealing with the methane produced from landfills, are critical for addressing climate change.

As the P5 Sentinel Satellite floated overhead, no one could see the clouds of methane from below – but the satellite could. We can no longer claim that we cannot see this potent greenhouse gas anymore. But seeing it is not enough. We need to prevent methane emissions.

Methane is a gas made from a carbon atom bonded to four hydrogens (CH4). It’s produced by archaean bacteria in the absence of oxygen as part of their metabolism. Bacteria in cow stomachs produce it, and bacteria in buried organic waste also produce it. Natural gas is a fossil fuel resulting from decomposing, buried organic materials.

In the complicated accounting of climate change, if atmospheric carbon dioxide stocks are the mortgage on our home, methane is credit card debt. It’s short term and supercharged with 84-87 times the warming potential of the same weight of CO2 over a 20-year time horizon. Even over 100 years, it’s 23 times worse. In 2014, the IPCC estimated that 16% of our total emissions come from methane using the 100-year time horizon “global warming potential” (GWP) conversion factor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) produces the methane tracker report yearly. It was estimated that 12% of total global methane emissions (anthropogenic and natural) come from solid waste, or landfills. That’s 18% of total human-generated methane, or about 3% of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that this is a problem which is relatively simple to solve. We can cap our landfills, capture the gas, and turn methane into electricity and heat. This doesn’t cost much – in fact if you can sell the electricity, it’s usually profitable.

So why aren’t we grabbing this low-hanging fruit?  First, we need to answer some questions, including establishing who actually owns the waste, who owns the gas, who is going to buy (and sell) the energy, how and at what price.  Building Eco-Industrial Parks near landfills can solve most of these issues in one go.

It would help greatly if landfill gas capture were mandatory for any entity operating a landfill.  Methane can be combusted on site, or cleaned, bottled and sold as BioCNG to displace fossil natural gas. Methane can be used to power the landfill site itself, for leachate treatment, or recycling conveyor belts, or even the trucks and forklifts.

A variation on the use of biogenic methane as a transport fuel can be seen in Karachi, Pakistan, where cattle manure will be converted to biogas, cleaned and compressed as BioCNG. The carbon emission impacts of BioCNG were a key factor for this transport project.

Where will the funding for these activities come from?

The global methane pledge is aiming to accelerate methane emission reductions to meet the Paris Goals. There are funds available for projects.

The IEA 2021 Energy update showed how methane emission reductions can fill the gap in meeting the Paris climate goals.  The good news about this update is that it shows a pathway for investment in energy transition. Methane abatement should be a significant component of that activity either as direct investment or as offsets for higher emitters.

Waste-to-energy projects, such as landfill gas or biogenic methane production from waste, should be supported. We can stop open dumping and burning of waste, poisoning our air and cutting lives short, we can keep plastic out of the oceans, where it poisons wildlife and ends up in food chains, and we can turn our wastes into new and valuable resources which displace fossil fuels, leaving them in the ground.

We know where the methane emissions are, we have affordable technology to convert the methane to energy, we have the ability to co-locate energy buyers, and we have the funds available to carry out the works.

What is needed are the skills (capacity) and the will (policies and laws). And last but not least, the sweat. Nothing is going to be achieved without work.

Getting a landfill gas power project off the ground requires a lot of work to develop the project and get it approved. It doesn’t matter if you are in the private sector or public (government needs its internal entrepreneurs as well, the people who make things change by sheer force of will). Find the landfill projects, develop them, and the financing will come.

About the author/s:

Stephen Peters is Senior Energy Specialist (Waste-to-Energy), Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, Asian Development Bank

Alex Nash is Urban Development Specialist, Southeast Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

This article was first published by the Asian Development Blog

(Disclaimer: Views expressed in the article are personal)

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