Cutting carbon emissions requires that we rebuild virtually our entire energy infrastructure globally. Lowering methane, by contrast, can be achieved with simple policies at the local level. Landfills represent the third largest source of methane pollution, after fossil fuel production and agriculture, and new studies suggest that landfill emissions may be three times as high as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. That means that investing in infrastructure to reduce or eliminate landfill methane emissions will pay huge dividends, and fast.
It’s also relatively easy. Technologies for diverting post-recycling waste from landfills are commercially available, and include everything from thermal processing plants to composting programs launched by cities from Cambridge, Mass. to San Francisco, often in response to citizen pressure.
Cutting methane would do more than just stabilize climate. It would also help to reduce the harmful health effects of smog, since methane is a key ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone. The UN report estimates that a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions would prevent 260,000 premature deaths and 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits.
Nickolas Themelis is a professor emeritus at Columbia Engineering. He is one of 35 scientists to send a letter to U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and national climate advisor Gina McCarthy calling on the U.S. to eliminate landfill methane emissions. He was joined by three other Columbia professors: Athanasios Bourtsalas, Kartik Chandran, and Steve Cohen.
This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.