On Tuesday, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted North American methane policy and “green bilateralism”, a paper release event featuring the authors of three research papers to discuss their writings on natural gas policies in North America, international bilateralist agreements and the political feasibility of climate policies today. The panelists’ papers contribute to the 2020-21 North American Colloquium (NAC), a forum organized by the Public Policy School’s International Policy Center (IPC) to discuss trilateral cooperation between the United States, Canada and Mexico on policy issues.

Debora VanNijnatten, professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Mark McWhinney, political science graduate student at Carleton University, spoke on their findings while writing their paper “Canada-US Green Bilateralism: Targeting Cooperation for Climate Mitigation.”

VanNijnatten said although North America needs a cross-border strategy — with which countries could cooperate to create bilateral policies — in order to effectively reduce greenhouse gasses, the United States’s current efforts to support bilateral climate cooperation are not implemented well.

“We want to make sure that North America uses its combined forces to secure a place in the global race for market share in clean tech … but that’s not what we have in place currently,” VanNijnatten said. “There is no ambitious cross-border climate policy strategy with a coherent vision.”

In 1991, the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Agreement was formed to address transboundary air pollution, or the air quality effects of pollutants that travel long distances. McWhinney said that this agreement, along with many past bilateral agreements between the United States and Canada, fell short compared to what policymakers initially wanted to see.

“(It was) taking the form of ministerials and joint statements, but not actually getting together within forum discussions and putting your heads together in a manner that is both constructive and cooperative,” McWhinney said.

VanNijnatten and McWhinney’s work also focuses on North America’s transition to using electric vehicles. McWhinney said that although the transition to electric vehicles would benefit from larger transcontinental cooperation to account for vehicle manufacturing, recycling and charging infrastructure components, the industry is often too competitive to allow cooperation between countries.

“That stems from the competitiveness of the industry itself, and the desire for a number of key actors and players to be leveraging or attempting to leverage comparative advantage within the domain itself,” McWhinney said. “We certainly understand why this might be the case, but we also question whether or not the industry itself can be deployed in a more constructive fashion if we have more cooperation on the table.”

Barry Rabe, Public Policy professor of environmental policy, discussed his research on the effectiveness of North American continental agreements for reducing methane emissions in his paper “Methane Politics and Policy in North America.”

In January 2021, the U.S. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to overturn the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency rule that limited the regulation of methane. In November, the U.S. entered into the North American Leaders’ pledge along with Canada and Mexico to chart next steps for global challenges. The pledge promises the creation of a North American Strategy on Methane and Black Carbon to reduce methane emissions from all economic sectors.

Rabe said while methane capture and mitigation technologies are generally cost-effective, most oil and gas producing states in North America have a history of opposing methane reduction policies due to political divisions. He said the overturning of Trump’s methane policy and increased transcontinental methane regulation will open the door for more regulations on methane emissions from the EPA and create greater division between oil and gas industries.

“We’re going to see a small set of production states, particularly Colorado and New Mexico, our second largest oil producer now after Texas, developing pretty aggressive regulatory programs to capture methane on their own,” Rabe said. “(The oil and gas industry) is no longer the uniform coalition that would be opposed to every possible methane proposal at a state capitol.”

Patricia Fisher, Public Policy and Public Health graduate student, spoke on her findings while writing her paper titled “The ‘Dark Horse’ of Climate Change: Agricultural Methane Governance in the United States and Canada.” Fisher said the role of livestock and agricultural methane emissions is an under examined policy perspective in North America.

“My paper is an attempt to begin filling that gap by examining the federal and sub-federal approaches to agricultural methane mitigation in the U.S. and Canada,” Fisher said. “Both (countries) represent small shares of the global population but are two of the world’s largest producers, consumers and exporters of livestock and animals for its products.”

Roughly 35% of greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system stem from livestock production. She also said the U.S. and Canada bear a disproportionate responsibility for global livestock methane emissions, but neither country is considering policy approaches that adequately address the changes needed to decrease gas emissions from North American food systems.

“To date, the U.S. has focused almost entirely on addressing the small fraction of livestock methane emissions that result from the decomposition of livestock,” Fisher said. “However, these policies do nothing to address the source of the vast majority of livestock methane emissions — enteric fermentation, which is a natural and essential part of ruminant livestock digestive systems.”

In the enteric fermentation process, microbes in the digestive tract of ruminant livestock decompose and ferment food, producing methane as a byproduct. Ruminant livestock animals bred for food systems, such as sheep, goats and cattle, account for roughly 30% of global human-made livestock emissions.

Fisher said multiple political barriers ranging from party interests to voter dietary preferences render agricultural methane emissions a difficult issue to address. 

“Particularly the U.S., given the outside global influence of American agricultural policy, must transition away from red meat and dairy consumption,” Fisher said. “However, it remains an open question whether we will muster the political will to effectively address this large and growing source of methane emissions.”

Public Policy graduate student Akiho Nagano said she attended the panel because she is interested in climate policy and wanted to learn more about the international cooperation perspective. 

“I was excited about Trish Fisher’s work because I did not know well about the relationship between climate change and agricultural policy and actual practices in that area,” Nagano said.

Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at vkiefer@umich.edu.