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Harvard Salata Institute Launches Interdisciplinary Research Cluster to Lower Methane Emissions

The Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability was founded in 2022 to foster climate-oriented research.
The Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability was founded in 2022 to foster climate-oriented research. By Frank S. Zhou
By Isabella G. Schauble and Sabrina R. Hu, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability launched a major initiative in July to lower global methane emissions as part of its Climate Research Clusters Program.

The methane emissions initiative is the largest of the five research clusters announced by the Salata Institute last semester and brings together 17 faculty researchers across five of the University’s schools, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Kennedy School, and the School of Public Health.

Kennedy School professor Robert N. Stavins will lead the initiative as its principal investigator, while Robert C. Stowe ’81 will serve as executive director.

According to Stavins, the overarching objective of the initiative is to “bring to bear the intellectual resources of Harvard University in order to identify ways in which global methane emissions can be reduced.”

“This is a combination of research and outreach.” Stavins said. “By outreach, I mean interacting beyond Harvard, not only with people at other universities, but people in governments, in NGOs and in private industry in sort of a two-way street — communicating to them and learning from them.”

Stavins said reducing methane emissions is “a very important short-term initiative” in battling climate change.

“Methane is an extremely important greenhouse gas because it has vastly greater radiative forcing than a unit of carbon dioxide does, but it remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time,” he said.

“Reducing methane emissions can be very effective in reducing climate change and sort of buy time for technological developments that can reduce CO2 emissions or ways of bringing down the cost of reducing CO2 emissions,” he added.

Carrie F. Jenks ’99 — the executive director of the HLS Environmental and Energy Law Program — emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of Salata’s clusters program.

“There’s no doubt that Harvard is full of experts, but how do you bring those experts together to come up with a better project and better research and make sure it’s relevant to the policy conversations that are happening?” Jenks asked.

“Climate change is so complex. I think climate in particular requires interdisciplinary solutions, and so I think that’s what Salata is bringing to the table,” she added.

The Salata Institute approached Harvard History professor Emma G. Rothschild for the initiative because of her previous involvement in a project on the microhistories of methane emissions. Rothschild’s research project involves what she described as a “micro-macro approach,” looking at methane emissions sites through both local histories and satellite imaging.

“It’s very important to have both perspectives because you can’t only reduce methane emissions through global or even national regulations. You also have to understand how the regulations are going to be implemented on the ground and also why that particular site is important,” she said.

School of Public Health Economics professor James K. Hammitt ’78 leads a project for the cluster that focuses on applying quantitative methods to investigate the “value of information” of future methane emissions from thawing permafrost.

“To really stop climate change, we’d have to stop greenhouse gas emissions, which basically means stopping use of fossil fuels to start with, stopping deforestation,” Hammitt said. “And to actually do those things would be incredibly disruptive and harmful to many, many people. So the question is, how far do you go?”

Jenks said she looks forward to seeing cross-university collaboration under the Salata Institute’s interdisciplinary program.

“Harvard can be really big and vast. And Salata is creating a platform for us all to work together on climate together, which I think is exciting and has been really a good opportunity since it got launched officially last year,” Jenks said.

Correction: September 7, 2023

A previous version of this article stated that executive director Robert C. Stowe ’81 will lead the methane initiative. In fact, principal investigator Robert N. Stavins will lead the initiative.

—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at sabrina.hu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sxbrinahhu.

—Staff writer Isabella G. Schauble can be reached at isabella.schauble@thecrimson.com.

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