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Marketwatch Op-Ed: here’s how to incentivize cleaning up landfills — the culprit driving one-fifth of global warming

Methane from landfills and other sources has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 over the first 20 years in the atmosphere. Could carbon credits be the answer?

By Winrock’s Mary Grady, executive director of the American Carbon Registry and Megesh Tiwari, senior technical director of ACR.

This op-ed was originally published on Marketwatch. Read the story here.

Most of us don’t think much about landfills, and when we do, it’s probably not in the context of global warming. But the fact is: landfills are serious climate culprits. 

According to a new study using satellite imagery, landfills release huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In one case, the study found Buenos Aires’ landfill emits approximately 250,000 annual metric tons of methane a year — or half of the city’s annual methane emissions.

Addressing methane emissions is so important because methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

Experts estimate that nearly one-fifth of today’s global warming is driven by methane from human actions. Steep reductions in methane emissions this decade would avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius additional warming by the 2040s, according to the United Nations. 

When we think of methane, we often focus on the largest two emission sources: agriculture and fossil fuels, such as oil CL00, 3.31% and natural gas NG00, +2.29%. But it is clear from recent findings that landfills make up a significant portion of global methane emissions, and the U.S. is no exception. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. landfills released an estimated 109.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) of methane into the atmosphere in 2020, which is more than the annual emissions equivalent of 23.5 million cars. This represents 16.8% of the country’s anthropogenic methane emissions, making landfills the third largest source of methane in the U.S.

Recent U.S. EPA landfill regulations (which are primarily focused non-methane organic compounds, or NMOC) require landfills of a certain size or a particular NMOC emissions profile to install gas collection and control systems (GCCS). Currently, these systems are manually operated through a process known as well-field tuning. A technician is required, first, to measure the gas composition, flow, temperature, and pressure at each collection point at a landfill and, then, to make adjustments to reduce the NMOC (and incidentally methane) emissions being released into the atmosphere.

While certainly a step in the right direction, these regulations have not solved the landfill methane emission problem. The issue is, while GCCS are beneficial, most systems are still allowing significant methane emissions to occur. Current systems’ reliance on once-a-month inspections and adjustments with manual effort is not preventing as much leakage as possible. Even modest improvements in collection efficiency can have significant impacts at scale.

Fortunately, technological advances now allow landfill operators to automate the well field tuning process, thereby increasing the methane collection efficiency. Cellular connected sensor systems can take continuous measurements (as much as every six seconds) and use cloud-based computing to automatically make small valve adjustments to continuously reduce the emissions instead of waiting on a monthly in-person checkup.

Some providers of these systems claim they can prevent up to 50,000 metric tons CO2 equivalent per year from entering the atmosphere. Working on just the thousand largest landfills in the U.S., these systems could prevent 50 MMTCO2E per year, equal to taking 10 million cars off the road. It is clear new GCCS could make a meaningful impact of U.S. methane emissions from landfills.

Despite these benefits, these new systems can be costly to install and operate. This is where carbon markets can support rapid market transformations to benefit the climate. By creating a financial incentive for landfills to install these automated systems, which in most cases would not be economical otherwise, carbon markets can accelerate adoption of more effective systems. 

Carbon credits are generated based on the improved methane collection against a baseline emissions scenario if the technology had not been installed. Landfills can use the sale of these high-quality credits to recover the costs of the new technology and benefit from enhanced gas collection moving forward.

With reinvigorated U.S. action on climate change, there will likely be much more momentum over the next few years to tackle methane emissions. Landfills don’t have the marketing appeal of sleek new wind turbines ICLN, +2.90% or the latest electric vehicle TSLA, +3.68%, but they represent a significant and straight-forward opportunity to deliver a real climate impact.

Let’s call on the power of carbon markets to ensure this does not become a lost opportunity.

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Winrock has long recognized the threat posed by climate change. ACR, founded in 1996 and operated by Winrock, is dedicated to the belief that markets are the most effective tools to tackle climate change. As such, ACR has developed transparent and science-based methodologies to incentivize carbon reductions in agriculture, transportation and other industries. ACR is also a partner in assuring that California’s landmark Cap-and-Trade Program can manage, verify and credit carbon offsets effectively.