UC Berkeley’s Ken Alex on Project Climate & Global Methane Pledge


VX News spoke to  Ken Alex, Director of Project Climate at the UC Berkeley School of Law, to share both research being undertaken as well as actions California and subnational governments are taking to drastically reduce short-lived climate pollutants—like methane—from key industry sectors within the next decade. Alex—who formerly served as Senior Policy Advisor for Governor Jerry Brown, OPR Director, and SGC Chair—highlights how Project Climate and other departments at UC Berkeley are significantly boosting research capacity of state and local policymakers to accelerate implementation of “absolutely realistic” and ambitious climate transition goals. 

Ken, after spending many years as a senior advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, OPR Director, and SGC chair, you now serve as Director of Project Climate at UC Berkeley School of Law. Begin by sharing what attracted you to that position and your ambitions?

Ken Alex: One of the things that I observed when I was in the Governor's office was that there's often a disconnect between government and the academic world on some of the major issues. The government needs solutions from the academic world, but they're not always easily available.

I thought that was a real need and opportunity, so I came to Berkeley with the idea that there's a way to help bring some of the incredible and amazing things that people are working on in the academic world more quickly to policy. Then, they can provide solutions more quickly to scale. That's been my ambition, and hopefully we're making a little progress.

Elaborate on the unique platform UC Berkeley Law School offers both you and Project Climate to accomplish these ambitious goals?

I work at the Center for Law, Energy, and Environment at the law school at Berkeley. The center provides a fair amount of freedom to pursue issues and connection between academia and implementation.

The people working on extraordinary things from Lawrence Berkeley Labs up on the hill in Berkeley to the College of Natural Resources to legal solutions to engineering and planning are amazing. In fact, one of the big challenges is that it's so broad a lot of things are often siloed. You don't necessarily know what people are working on, so our center has made an effort to try to figure some of that out.

I'll give you one example. I'm fairly obsessed with methane for reasons we can talk about. Methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases, and I really didn't know everything that was going on even at Berkeley, let alone the University of California, more broadly around methane research. We engaged with another small entity at Berkeley that that helped figure some of this out called the Environmental Change Research Network. We did a survey of some of the work on methane, and many of the people working on these issues didn't realize what their colleagues were up to. A very simple idea led to some discovery and some engagement among faculty that really needed to be talking to each other.

After the 2016 national election, your work on policy for the State of California coordinating at the subnational level was magnified by the lack of federal leadership on climate. Now, with the Biden administration, what, if anything, has changed re subnational government collaboration on climate action?

I worked for the State of California for about 35 years, so I have a prejudice. I feel like subnational governments don't always get their due.  In the US, the states are called the laboratories of change, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. In the climate world, about 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the urban environment, so a lot of the solutions need to come from there as well.

Now we have a president who's doing a fair amount, but the legislative branch is doing nothing other than budgets. So, there continues to be a massive need in the US for subnational action. The states, even with the help of now the Biden administration, continue to drive climate action, even as money comes from the federal government. A lot of that money is to implement policies and actions at the state level.

We could go into a lot of detail about what California, Washington, New York, and other states are doing, but let me put it in the international context as well. Governor Brown gave me the opportunity before the Paris Agreement in 2015 to help start an entity called the Under2 Coalition that has over 200 subnational governments around the world working to promote more aggressive climate action because all of the international efforts sponsored by the United Nations are at a country level, but much of the action and much of the impact is at a state or provincial or city level.

So, part of the thinking is subnational governments need more voice in the international process and are often a force for more aggressive action that can't be done at the national level.

Does former Governor Schwarzenegger deserve a shout out for prioritizing subnational collaboration?

Absolutely. Governor Brown often said that it's been quite a continuum in California among governors of both parties going back to Gray Davis to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jerry Brown, and now with Governor Newsom.

Governor Schwarzenegger gets a lot of shout outs on climate. He raised the profile of California, even though it was already pretty good profile. Internationally, he was very prominent. He had a reputation coming in and expanded that, much to the benefit of the state and climate action. He brought his ability to get things done. We're continuing to talk about solar panels on rooftops. That is part of his legacy, and solar systems at large scale in California are part of his legacy as well.

Reflecting on last fall’s COP 26 and its focus on cutting methane emissions 30 percent by 2030 under the Global Methane Pledge, elaborate on that pledge and how academia helps implement  both policy and practice.

I’ve been working on methane as a greenhouse gas and a big climate issue for about 10 years. Underscoring the connection between academia and policy when it works well— a lot of that work is because of a professor at UC San Diego, Ram Ramanathan, who is really one of the world experts on short-lived climate pollutants. He really brought to my and the governor's attention the importance of short-lived climate pollutants that are in the atmosphere for, in this case of methane, 10 or 15 years, as opposed to CO2, which can last 100 years or more. But methane is also about an 80-times greater greenhouse gas promoter than CO2 over a 20-year period.

Dr. Ramanathan’s point was if we stop emitting the shorter-lived climate pollutants, not only will we have reduced emissions, but they will be out of the atmosphere in a fairly short period of time, giving us more time to act on CO2. In addition, methane turns out to be at least 25 percent of the greenhouse gas forcing function, meaning the amount that it's heating and creating the greenhouse gas effect. And, it turns out that it's also somewhat easier to contain, control, and limit emissions because methane comes from a lot fewer sources; it comes from oil and gas operations, certain agricultural operations-- mostly cattle, coal operations, and landfill and waste.

At COP 26, methane finally got a spotlight. There are two key agreements that are of note. First is the Global Methane Pledge, signed by now over 110 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's a voluntary agreement. We need to build something that has more teeth, but there's immediately some momentum, which is pretty amazing. That agreement came together as an effort of the United States at the federal level and the European Union in a period of months. That shows some real momentum.

For the other agreement, China did not sign onto the Global Methane Agreement, but they entered into a declaration with the United States. There are very specific provisions for methane in that agreement. It's very hopeful, from my perspective, that China is going to have a very clear focus on methane emissions. Hopefully we’re going to be working with them a bit on that to help develop their strategies.

Alex, Is 2030 a realistic goal?

Absolutely. The goal under the Global Methane Pledge is to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030—that is absolutely realistic. In the oil and gas sector, methane is actually a product; it's natural gas. If the oil and gas industry captures methane, they can use it as product, and therefore the cost of that leak detection and capture is quite low for the industry.

Also, there are very clear-cut existing techniques and actions that can be taken in oil and gas in the next five years. In five years, we could reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 70 percent with a concerted effort, and that's quite realistic.

It is hard to know what impact the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have.  The EU seems to be accelerating its move away from fossil fuels, which could reduce both CO2 and methane emissions more quickly, but at the same time, the isolation of Russia may preclude meaningful action by Russia to reduce emissions from its operations.  My hope, certainly, is that we see even more clearly the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Some of the other sectors are more difficult—agriculture, in particular. But, there are strategies and there are growing technologies right now with cattle, for example. We know how to capture a lot of manure emissions. The other source of emissions, which are larger from cattle, are enteric, meaning the burps out of the front end. There are strategies around different feed additives that will really impact those methane emissions.

That's also true for waste in landfills, and it's definitely true for coal. So, by 2030, a 30 percent reduction is unquestionably a reasonable goal.

In January, the California and New York Attorneys General led a coalition of states in submitting comments supporting the EPA’s proposal to strengthen regulation of emissions from new, modified, and reconstructed facilities in the oil and natural gas sector, and, for the first time, to regulate emissions from existing facilities. Help our readers align that news with your earlier comments as well as your current Project Climate work?

This is one of the places where the Biden administration is really taking a leadership role. California has had SB 1383, which requires a 40 percent reduction of methane by 2030. It's comparable to a 30 percent reduction in the global pledge because of the baseline year. But at any rate, as is often the case, California's regulations have preceded worldwide regulations and federal regulations.

Now, the Biden administration is taking a leadership role. As I said, the specific requirements for the oil and gas industry action are very reasonable. They capture products, and the cost is not anything significant from what I understand. My hope is that the new rules will really promote action in the oil and gas industry not just in the United States and the EU, but in places where things have been less than pristine like Nigeria, Myanmar, and other places where we have significant oil and gas operations that need to have methane controlled.

At Project Climate, we are identifying actions that can be taken to reduce and capture methane emissions across all sectors.  Requirements in California, Colorado, and now more broadly in the US form the basis for greater action around the world.  We are working to get these strategies adopted far and wide, working with the Under2 Coalition, the EU, and others. 

Recently an opinion piece by Liam Denning was published in Bloomberg, which noted that the cash flows of Exxon and Chevron recall the glory days, but the companies are remaking themselves for a more constrained, lower-carbon future. Your response?

Well, I say this having not seen or read the piece, but just based on what you just said, I'm dubious. We've had a long history, particularly over the course of the past climate change years, of oil companies giving lip service to their turning over a new leaf and becoming renewable energy companies. It really is happening at a pace that is incredibly slow. There needs to be a complete rethinking of oil companies becoming energy companies as their advertisements say, rather than simply giving lip service to the idea. It needs to accelerate. Most of what I've read from oil company CEOs reflects the idea that they think they'll be producing oil and gas at the same rate for the next 50 years.

By the way, as we move to electrify transportation, demand for oil and gas is going to move over to plastics. A lot of people don't know that about 95 percent of plastics are made from natural gas and some from oil. That's the biggest growth area for the industry over the next decade projections. So, the words are nice from the oil companies, but I've yet to see it in practice.

If, as many assert, all politics are local;  the LA City Council recently took action towards banning new oil and gas drilling. What are your thoughts on the implications of that action by the city?

I grew up in Long Beach, which has been an urban center for oil drilling over the last 50 or 100 plus years. I have to say, banning new oil and gas drilling is fairly long overdue in LA. A lot of the oil drilling in Los Angeles is near where people live. It has plenty of health and environmental impacts. It's also the case that the oil wells are in areas with very old oil deposits. They're on their last legs, and it's probably time to start thinking about phasing out those wells, particularly in developed areas. It also strikes me as probably a precursor of what we're going to be seeing more of.

The action also has environmental justice implications.  With the exception of some wells in Beverly Hills and Huntington Beach, most of the oil drilling in the LA Basin are in underserved neighborhoods.  Californians are still driving over 310 billion vehicle miles a year, so phasing out oil needs to be paired with reducing demand, but overall, it’s good to see the end to oil production in urban areas.

Lastly, Ken, elaborate on what’s being done to build out the capacity of Project Climate at UC Berkeley Law School. Initiatives? Programs?

We actually just hired five fellows this year, and that's a big number for us. It’s by far our biggest group. We are really excited by the five folks who are starting, and that's hopefully just the beginning. We really want the center to be a focal point for climate change solutions and other environmental issues.

We also have the Wheeler Water Institute looking at a lot of in-depth water issues in California and beyond. Jerry Brown is part of the center, as is Mary Nichols. They're the heads of something called the California-China Climate Institute. So, we will hopefully be doing a fair amount of work with China going forward. We've also started something called GrizzlyCorps, which is an AmeriCorps program that sends recent grads to farm and forest communities to work on carbon sequestration and resilience. We have a little radio program that focuses on climate solutions called Climate Break. We've helped start something called the Climate and Wildfire Institute, which is really focused on sierras and other fire susceptible regions. We have some pretty big ambitions focused around promoting climate solutions and moving things more quickly in that realm.

“I came to Berkeley with the idea that there's a way to help bring some of the incredible and amazing things that people are working on in the academic world more quickly to policy.”
“The goal, under the Global Methane Pledge, is to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. That is absolutely realistic.”