See also: “Energy from Waste Can Help Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions” by Matt Kasper
Conversations about mitigating climate change typically focus on carbon dioxide emissions, but methane, another greenhouse gas, is a sleeping giant. Even though we emit less methane than carbon dioxide, it has a greater short-term impact on global warming. In fact, methane is 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.
Because of this, the recent release of the White House’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions is a critical juncture in our fight against climate change. Back in June 2013, President Barack Obama promised action on reducing methane in his Climate Action Plan, an ambitious agenda to address the increasing dangers of global warming. However, while the new methane strategy is a promising step forward, there are more policies that the administration should pursue. In particular, we need to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills and divert the remaining waste to energy-recovery facilities that generate electricity—a process known as energy from waste, or EfW. This process will reduce landfill methane emissions and offset the carbon dioxide emissions generated from coal and natural gas power plants. Additionally, states should be allowed to incorporate EfW technology in their implementation plans to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, forthcoming carbon-pollution standards.
Curbing methane emissions is essential to meeting the president’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Methane makes up nearly 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emitted in the United States as a result of human activity. Emissions are projected to increase through 2030 if additional action is not taken. According to EPA data, pound for pound, methane has a global warming potential that is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Even more concerning, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes that methane is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, and as mentioned above, methane is 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. In other words, reducing these emissions is important because methane fuels global warming in the short term.
One specific priority outlined in the White House strategy is reducing methane emissions from landfills, which are generated by decomposing garbage. There are more than 2,000 active municipal solid waste, or MSW, landfills in the United States, and they are the country’s third-largest source of methane emissions, accounting for 18 percent of methane emissions in 2012. This is equivalent to 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, or the annual emissions from 26 coal-fired power plants. The EPA plans to propose updated standards in the coming months to reduce methane emissions from new landfills, take public comment on whether to update standards for existing landfills, enhance landfill gas-to-energy projects, and work with manufacturers and communities to reduce the amount of waste that enters landfills to begin with.
Through the Landfill Methane Outreach Program, or LMOP, a voluntary assistance program that encourages the installation of recovery technologies on landfill sites to capture emissions, the EPA will continue to partner with industry, state, and local leaders and put these methane emissions to good use. Thanks to the EPA’s LMOP, there are more than 600 projects in the United States that take the methane emissions from landfills and turn them into electricity. This program and renewed commitment to LMOP show that the administration realizes the benefits of capturing methane and converting it into power.
However, landfills are not obligated to collect gas immediately, nor are they required to collect it for the entire period during which methane is being generated. This often means that only a fraction of the gas that is produced is collected to generate electricity or heat homes.
EPA research has concluded that sending waste to EfW facilities is a better option than sending the garbage to the landfill. This technology is capable of producing 10 times more electricity than landfill gas-to-energy technology. Additionally, greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, even those with optimum conditions for capturing methane and turning it into electricity, are two to six times higher than those generated from EfW facilities.
Therefore, when the EPA begins to take public comments on the landfill standards and meet with state and local groups about methane emissions in the coming months, the use of energy-recovery facilities must be on the agency’s agenda. Furthermore, the EPA should include this type of facility as a compliance mechanism when working with state governments on reducing carbon pollution through the upcoming standards under Section 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act. EfW facilities are the only significant source of electrical generation with a net negative carbon footprint.
According to the EPA, approximately one ton of emitted carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is prevented for every ton of garbage processed at an EfW facility. This is because the trash burned at the facility does not generate methane, as it would at a landfill. Additionally, the metals that would have been sent to the landfill are recycled instead of thrown out, and the electricity generated offsets the greenhouse gases that would otherwise have been generated from baseload coal and natural gas power plants.
This approach will also increase recycling rates across the country. Indeed, communities that have invested in energy-recovery technologies have an aggregate recycling rate that is 5 percentage points above the national average. This will help achieve another goal outlined in the administration’s methane strategy: reducing the amount of waste that enters landfills.
These policies have already succeeded in Europe. The European Environment Agency notes that increasing rates of recycling and energy recovery will decrease the amount of greenhouse gases that a country emits. The European Union has adopted MSW policies, and these standards helped decrease greenhouse gas emissions from Europe’s waste sector by 34 percent between 1990 and 2007.
President Obama’s Climate Action Plan outlines an ambitious agenda to mitigate climate change. Although much attention has focused on the proposed regulatory standards on existing and new power supplies, curbing methane emissions is a critical piece of the puzzle. The Obama administration can both reduce methane emissions and create strong carbon-emission standards by supporting EfW facilities in future policies.
Matt Kasper is a Research Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.
Thank you to Danielle Baussan, Managing Director of Energy Policy at the Center, and Ben Bovarnick, Special Assistant with the Energy Policy team at the Center, for their contributions to this column.