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New Reports Highlight Solutions to Methane Impact on Human Health Across Sectors

Rockville, Md.— A new report series identifies top opportunities to reduce methane emissions in the energy, waste, and agriculture sectors to improve human health. Capable of heating the environment 80 times more than carbon dioxide, methane is an enormous contributor to the climate crisis and rising respiratory and cancer-related deaths, among other health impacts. The report series, Mitigating Methane: A Global Health Strategy—produced by Abt Associates on behalf of the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA)— surveyed top literature and experts to create a comprehensive guide that identifies methane’s health impacts by sector and opportunities for the health community to reduce emissions at international, national, and local levels within each sector.

Methane accounts for 30 percent of the current rise in global warming. It worsens air quality by contributing to the creation of ground-level ozone, a toxic air pollutant that causes more than 1 million respiratory deaths in adults each year. Half of the methane in the atmosphere is the result of human activity, and 95 percent of that comes from one of three sectors: energy, agriculture, and waste. While methane’s ubiquity and potency are alarming, those same characteristics make it a relatively easy target to reduce global temperatures in the short-term as humanity works to address the longer-term impact of C02. 

“Methane’s effects on the environment are extensive and well understood,” said Amanda Quintana, Climate and Health Technical Lead, co-author, and project director for Abt Associates. “What we need now is to mobilize the health community and help people understand that, because methane has both indirect and direct impacts on human health, there are direct health benefits to reducing methane emissions, both in the short- and long-term.”

“Every leakage of fossil methane brings with it dangerous co-pollutants,” added Dr. Jeni Miller, Executive Director of GCHA. “Implementing well-chosen strategies to mitigate methane emissions provides great opportunities to reduce the health impacts of air pollution, unhealthy foods, and noxious and toxic leaching from waste sites.”

Solutions by sector:

  • Agriculture. The largest source of methane come from the agriculture sector, which accounts for over 40 percent of emissions, around 33 percent of which comes from the digestive process of livestock and the decomposition of organic material in livestock manure. Land clearing—the process of removing trees and vegetation through fires—releases methane along with black carbon, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds that exacerbate respiratory conditions and affect children’s lung health Rice cultivation, which involves flooded rice paddies, creates hospitable conditions for methanogenic organisms to thrive—and produce methane. Finally, agricultural land clearing practices, which involve cutting or burning plants and trees to make space for farming or livestock, release methane stored in the soil and roots. Sample solution: A recent study found that no-cost solutions for livestock methane emissions reduction, such as improved feeding and manure management, could reduce emissions by 2 percent by 2030, and that the implementation of all technically feasible solutions—such as selective breeding—could decrease emissions by 70 percent. The same study found that no-cost solutions for rice production, such as improved irrigation methods, could reduce emissions by 6 percent, and that implementation of all technically feasible solutions—including the use of hybrid varieties—could decrease emissions to 50 percent of baseline levels. These solutions do not include dietary change; the estimated potential of emissions reductions is even higher when behavioral and societal shifts such as human consumption levels and patterns, and dietary access and incentives are considered as part of a holistic mitigation strategy.
  • Energy. The energy sector is the second largest source of methane emissions, responsible for 35 percent of emissions. In the oil and gas sector, the unintentional leakages, venting, and flaring of “natural” gas— a fossil fuel made of 70 to 90 percent methane—significantly contributes to emissions. During coal mining, methane stored in coal deposits buried deep underground is released into the atmosphere. Sample solution: The report calls for countries to include methane mitigation strategies for the fossil fuels sector in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and methane action plans. Right now—across all 168 NDCs—only 18 percent of countries included measures to reduce fugitive methane emissions from oil and natural gas, only 2 percent for coal mining, and only 1 country committed to halting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.
  • Waste. Finally, the waste sector, which encompasses wastewater and municipal solid waste, accounts for 20 percent of methane emissions. Methane from the waste sector comes from the decomposition of organic waste under anaerobic conditions at landfills, open dumpsites, or wastewater systems. Sample solution: In the waste sector, landfill fires—ignited by methane produced from the decomposition of organic waste—produces black carbon and carbon monoxide, which threaten the health and safety of surrounding communities. Co-pollutants emitted with methane can further contribute to the formation of other air pollutants such as NOx emitted with methane that can further contribute to the formation of tropospheric ozone, which exacerbates respiratory conditions and heart disease.

About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a global consulting and research firm that combines data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people's lives. We partner with clients and communities to advance equity and innovation—from creating scalable digital solutions and combatting infectious disease, to mitigating climate change and evaluating programs for measurable social impact.

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