What about the “moral hazard” of removing methane from the atmosphere? Wouldn’t it let polluters off the hook?

Some climate advocates view removal of greenhouse gases (GHG) as a “moral hazard” that could embolden fossil fuel companies to keep polluting and profiting at the expense of the climate and frontline communities, while leaving the job of mitigating the pollution to others.   

The risk polluters may try to do this is real and not negligible. On the other hand, so is the risk of a feedback loop where methane releases from permafrost or wetlands accelerate as temperatures rise.  Such releases could not be mitigated without methane removal deployed at scale.  

There are effective steps we can take to reduce the risk that polluters might misuse methane removal as an excuse to keep polluting.  Preventing misuse is a matter of good governance. Laws and regulations requiring deep cuts in methane and other GHG emissions must be binding on polluters and enforced. 

Methane Action works to advance policy as well as scientific frameworks for methane removal research and development (R&D).  We are working to ensure that governance structures that prioritize methane emissions reductions that meet the terms of the Global Methane Agreement are in place while methane removal R&D is scaled up. The two approaches are not exclusive, but additive, and both are essential. They are linked and mutually reinforcing, but methane emissions mitigation, as the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, must be prioritized now. We have repeatedly gone on record, including in formal comments and testimony to the EPA, calling for stronger requirements to cut methane emissions while simultaneously supporting new initiatives for methane removal.  

It’s important to recognize the potential for moral hazard is less for methane removal than for removing other greenhouse gases, because methane emissions come from many sources – not only fossil fuels. Reporting on Methane Action’s work in The New Yorker, Bill McKibben wrote, “The moral-hazard argument—the idea that, if you block the sun, oil companies will use it as an excuse to keep churning out fossil fuels—seems a little less pressing in this case: methane removal could become a tool for the fossil-fuel industry to keep fracking for natural gas, but most of the methane that must be removed actually doesn’t come from fossil fuels.” 

Currently, coal, gas, and oil account for about 37% of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S. (though recent research suggests fossil fuel methane emissions may be undercounted). Another 36% of U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions comes from agriculture, especially livestock and manure. Anthropogenic methane emissions represent 60% of overall atmospheric methane emissions; the other 40% comes from natural sources such as wetlands, freshwater systems, and permafrost. Methane emissions from these sources are rising and may also require methane removal.

The moral hazard argument assumes that we have a choice whether or not to undertake greenhouse gas removal (GGR).  But scientists are telling us that GGR is no longer a choice, but a necessity. The 2021 IPCC report indicated clearly we will need GGR to have a chance of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees C. Most climate scientists now agree that if we rely solely on cutting emissions, atmospheric GHGs won’t fall fast enough to avoid catastrophic warming. 

That leaves us with little choice. At this point in the climate crisis, coupling methane emissions mitigation with active removal is more of a moral imperative than a moral hazard.  In order to bring atmospheric methane concentrations down to safe levels, we must do both.

Line graph showing concentrations of methane in the atmosphere from 800,000 years ago through 2019.
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