Climate fund grant supports efforts to track sources of mysterious leaks
Harvard students, faculty, and fellows are training new high-tech instruments on Boston’s skies, searching for one well-known troublemaker and one escapee among the atmosphere’s invisible gases.
The old troublemaker is carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels that long has been known as the main cause of climate change. The escapee is methane, an even more powerful emission that is the main component of the natural gas burned in home furnaces and in the electricity-generating power plants that are shouldering aside coal-fired plants across the country.
Though both are fossil fuels, burning natural gas is better than burning coal when it comes to the environment, because natural gas releases half as much carbon dioxide for an equal amount of energy generated. In addition, it is far cleaner than other pollutants in its burning, including in the fine particles that can cause health problems.
Unburned natural gas, however, is another story.
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and, if it escapes into the atmosphere unburned, can trap between 15 and 100 times more solar radiation than carbon dioxide can. Understanding how methane gets into the atmosphere from both natural and manmade sources has become an important focus of climate research.
Steven Wofsy, Harvard’s Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, said it’s pretty clear that a significant amount of unburned natural gas is escaping in the Boston region. He is leading a project to find the source of the leak or leaks and, in collaboration with faculty and students from Harvard Law School, seeking to design technical, legal, or regulatory solutions to reduce the emissions. …
The project is being conducted in collaboration with Hutyra and Wendy Jacobs, clinical professor of law and director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.
Jacobs said the interdisciplinary nature of the project is key, and the goal is not just to use science to illuminate the problem of methane and carbon dioxide emissions in the city, but to design laws and regulations to address the problem.
“Laws, regulations, and public policy will not be effective unless informed by reliable science and data. Reliable science and data can effectively be deployed to solve a problem when integrated into new technologies, laws, regulations, and public policies,” Jacobs said. “The collaboration of our distinct disciplines is more powerful than either discipline alone.”