Launching a Harvard Initiative to Reduce Global Methane Emissions

In February of this year, I wrote at this blog about a then-forthcoming “Soup-to-Nuts Initiative (at Harvard) to Reduce Global Methane Emissions.”  Today, I’m pleased to announce that this initiative has now been launched, with funding and broader engagement from the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University.  In today’s blog post, I describe the overall initiative, as well its six initial research projects being executed in the first year of the three-year initiative.

Overview of the Initiative

This is a major research and outreach initiative to reduce global methane emissions. The initiative seeks meaningful and sustained progress in global methane-emissions reductions through research and effective engagement with government policymakers – and with key stakeholders in business, nongovernmental organizations, and international institutions. Methane-emissions abatement can, in the near term, significantly reduce the magnitude of climate change and its impacts – giving the world time to “bend the curve” on CO2 emissions, conduct research on carbon removal, and, more generally, to implement longer-term strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The initiative’s objectives are to build on new scientific research on measurement and attribution of emissions; understand legal, regulatory, and political opportunities and constraints to methane-emissions reductions in the United States and in some other countries; design policies that might best contribute to methane-emissions reduction; work effectively through existing international venues, such as the Global Methane Pledge; and define roles that business – and international and multilateral organizations – can play in these efforts.

The intellectual landscape across the disciplines addressed by the methane cluster’s seventeen participating faculty members is exceptionally diverse. These faculty are based in four departments in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Earth and Planetary SciencesEconomicsGovernment, and History) and five professional schools (Harvard Business SchoolHarvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied SciencesHarvard Kennedy SchoolHarvard Law School, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). They approach methane-emissions reduction through the disciplinary lenses of natural science, engineering, economics, political science, history, law, business, and policy studies.

The methane initiative will achieve its goals primarily through focused research projects, each conducted by two or more Harvard faculty members. Faculty members within a particular project are, in most cases, from different disciplines and Harvard schools. The six projects being pursued in the first year of the initiative are described below. Additional research projects will be identified in the future for the subsequent years of this three-year initiative. The full group of seventeen faculty will also meet regularly and communicate electronically to exchange insights and identify synergies across (and beyond) projects.

The organization and management of the initiative will ensure that faculty communicate and collaborate across disciplinary and institutional boundaries to support real action to reduce methane emissions. Indeed, this carefully designed structure will ensure that this a truly end-to-end initiative, from natural science to policy and action, to reduce methane emissions – that the whole of the initiative will be greater than the sum of its parts, with regard to both knowledge-generation and impact.

I have the privilege of serving as Principal Investigator of the methane initiative, and I’ve included information on the sixteen other faculty members below.  Robert Stowe serves as Executive Director of the Initiative, and – working with me – coordinates activities of the Initiative and its constituent research projects.

The methane initiative is one of five ambitious, three-year climate-change research clusters that the Salata Institute is supporting.  The others address corporate net-zero targets, climate adaptation in South Asia, climate adaptation in the Gulf of Guinea, and approaches to strengthening communities through equitable and locally-driven energy development.

Research Projects Supported by the Methane Initiative in Academic Year 2023-2024

Using Satellite Observations of Atmospheric Methane to Serve U.S. Reporting and Regulatory Needs

Daniel Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Harvard University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Carrie Jenks, Executive Director, Environmental and Energy Law Program, Harvard Law School

The project’s goal is to increase the value of satellite observations of atmospheric methane for reporting and regulation of methane emissions in the United States. In particular, Jacob, Jenks, and their teams: (1) seek to improve reporting of methane emissions from landfills under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program; (2) develop a near-real-time satellite-based monitoring system for verification of emission reductions and quantification of methane intensities.

The Economic Costs of Reducing Methane Emissions

Joseph Aldy, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Forest Reinhardt, John D. Black Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

Robert Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development, Harvard Kennedy School

The project seeks to identify opportunities for applying empirical methods to improve cost estimates, as well as policy instruments for transferring emissions-control responsibilities from one emissions-source category to another (to reduce aggregate abatement costs). In pursuit of this goal, Aldy, Reinhardt, and Stavins are reviewing literature and advancing research on three types of cost estimates: Engineering cost estimates, econometrically-estimated measures of costs, and costs revealed through public policies in the United States.

Regulatory Obstacles and Opportunities for Well-Capping in Pennsylvania

Stephen Ansolabehere, Frank G. Thompson Professor of Government, Harvard University Department of Government

Carrie Jenks, Executive Director, Environmental and Energy Law Program, Harvard Law School

Dustin Tingley, Professor of Government, Harvard University Department of Government

This project will convene major stakeholders in western Pennsylvania to discuss ways to address regulatory and economic obstacles to capping natural gas wells that are no longer producing – of which there are at least 400,000 in the area. The objectives of the workshop are to clarify the issues and challenges faced and to develop a blueprint for regulatory and legislative action. Participants will include state regulators, state legislators, current well owners and operators, land owners, community leaders, and experts in emissions and well-capping. Participating Harvard faculty and their teams will consider implications of their findings for other regions of the United States and for other segments of the oil and gas industry.

Arctic Methane Emissions and Climate Mitigation

James Hammitt, Professor of Economics and Decision Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

The project investigates quantitatively the economic value of narrowing uncertainty about future emissions of methane from thawing permafrost, as a function of how rapidly that narrowing can be accomplished. The work will draw in part on findings from ongoing work on monitoring and modeling emissions from permafrost thaw, both at the Salata Institute and in the TED/Audacious-funded Permafrost Pathways Project, whose component at Harvard Kennedy School is directed by John Holdren.

Using Remote Sensing Data to Inform Micro-Histories of Methane-Release Sites

Emma Rothschild, Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History, Harvard University Department of History

Steven Wofsy, A.L. Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Harvard University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

The project seeks to juxtapose micro-histories of the sites of methane emissions with the extraordinary potential of satellite and aircraft imaging. Its object is to understand what has been happening in locations that are of central importance to global greenhouse gas emissions, and to understand more about how emissions of methane can be reduced, including the social context. The focus will be on the upcoming flights of the new MethaneAIR remote sensing instrument for measuring methane concentrations along broad swaths of the landscape with very fine spatial resolution and high precision.

International Cooperation to Reduce Methane Emissions

Robert Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development, Harvard Kennedy School

Robert Stowe, Co-Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

The project characterizesthe complex landscape of international cooperation to reduce methane emissions and develop recommendations on how international cooperation might be advanced within a diffuse institutional framework. The project may proceed to address in depth: the interaction of trade policy (including with regard to natural gas) and efforts to reduce methane emissions; how large-emitting countries, including China, might advance efforts to abate, in part through international cooperation; and the potential role of cooperation with regard to the development and deployment of abatement technology.

Participating Faculty Advising Projects

A number of other Harvard faculty members are participating in the methane initiative but not affiliated with the specific projects listed above. They are advising these projects and the larger initiative, as their expertise warrants, and may direct new projects in subsequent years of the initiative. These are:

Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law, Harvard Law School*

Jeffry Frieden, Professor of Government, Harvard University Department of Government

Richard Lazarus, Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Meghan O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Michael Toffel, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management, Harvard Business School

* Professor Freeman is also an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips, advising the company on climate change and the clean energy transition.

External Collaborators

Finally, the Harvard Methane Initiative has formally engaged several experts from other universities and organizations as External Collaborators:

Mark Brownstein, Senior Vice President of Energy Transition, Environmental Defense Fund

Nathaniel Hendren, Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Catherine Wolfram, William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Potential Collaborating Organizations

In preliminary work in spring 2023, the methane initiative has been in close communication with the following organizations that focus on reducing methane emissions. The initiative’s leadership expects to collaborate more actively with some of these over the course of the initiative’s three-year program.

Aiming for Zero Methane Emissions Initiative, Oil & Gas Climate Initiative

Clean Air Task Force

Climate Change Group, World Bank Group

Energy Emissions Modeling and Data Lab (focusing on methane); a collaboration of the University of Texas – Austin, Colorado State University, and the Colorado School of Mines

Environmental Defense Fund

International Methane Emissions Observatory, U.N Environment Programme

Office of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

Resources for the Future

I’m very excited that we’re launching our global methane research and outreach activities; and as the work progresses, I promise to keep readers of this blog up to date on our activities and results.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.