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Blair Horner: Slowing The March To Climate Catastrophe

It is hard not to despair about the looming climate catastrophe caused by global warming.  The world keeps moving past warnings and climate milestones and the nation’s political processes seem incapable of taking the necessary aggressive actions.

The political, public relations, and economic might of the oil, coal, and gas industries has for decades undermined environmental laws and bamboozled the public about the dangers of a rapidly warming planet – dangers that they knew were real since the 1970s.  Today their influence may be diminished, but they are still incredibly powerful.

No one can re-write that history, so here we are.  The world must either shift to a non-fossil fuel-powered economy or the world as we know it will cease to exist. 

Last week, an important climate program of the United Nations issued a report on the threat posed by a greenhouse gas that gets scant attention in the public debate over climate change: methane.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas.  It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil – particularly through the mining and transportation of fracked gas.  Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.

While climate change debates tend to focus on carbon dioxide, methane emissions have a more devastating impact on global warming.  That’s because the greenhouse gas is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet.  Methane absorbs more energy than carbon dioxide, thus keeping more heat trapped in the atmosphere – and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster than at any time since record keeping began in the 1980s.  Methane is 80 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and has caused about 30% of global heating to date.

While methane forms a thicker “blanket” that heats the planet faster than carbon dioxide, the gas has a shorter “lifespan” in the atmosphere.  Methane today lasts about a decade, on average, while carbon dioxide lasts for centuries. 

Methane also is a key component of surface ozone – the air pollution that results from the combination of smog and heat – and thus also contributes to lung disease and other pulmonary problems.

Reducing methane is considered critical to keeping global warming from becoming a runaway climate catastrophe and saving lives in the short term by reducing surface ozone.

The United Nations report (Global Methane Assessment) issued last week examined that problem and the steps needed to slashing methane emissions.  The report found that methane emissions could be almost halved by 2030 using existing technology and at reasonable cost.  A significant proportion of the actions would be profitable, such as capturing methane gas leaks at fossil fuel sites.  Methane cuts also immediately reduce air pollution and would prevent many premature deaths and lost crops.

According to the report, using technology available today, the world could cut methane emissions from fossil fuels, agriculture and rotting waste by 45% within a decade and thus significantly impact on the amount of heat generated by greenhouse gases.  Moreover, reductions today will have immediate benefits – ozone levels will decrease and the heat from methane will be reduced relatively quickly.

The U.N. report lists a few recommendations, in addition to technical solutions, that can be used to guide policymakers.  Among the most interesting:

·         Oil, gas, and coal: the world must move away from fossil fuels and rely more on alternative energy sources.  It makes little sense, for example, to spend money on new infrastructure for the transportation of oil and gas when the world must ween off its reliance on those sources of power – sources which contribute mightily to the emission of methane gas.

·         Waste: through the improved treatment and disposal of solid waste, emissions can be reduced and as much as 60 per cent of the necessary measures have either no or low costs.

·         Agriculture also has some straightforward solutions.  Eating a healthy diet that, for many people, means cutting down on red meat consumption would reduce the number of livestock being produced for slaughter.  

While the topic may be depressing, the U.N. report shows that relatively low-cost actions taken in the near term can both save lives and take a bite out of the overall necessary reductions to keep the ongoing climate changes that we are all experiencing from spinning out-of-control and putting the health of the planet at risk.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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