Cuts in Methane and PM Pollution Can Slow Climate Change

by jim on November 27, 2012

In an opinion piece in The Daily Climate, Michael MacCraken, the chief scientist for the DC-based Climate Institute advocates an end-run strategy to avoid the political logjam over large CO2 cuts as a way to fight global warming. He suggests concentrating on reducing Methane and Particulate Matter pollution as a way to "appreciably slow the rate of warming over the next several decades." He cites an earlier UN study that concluded:

"…a moderately aggressive international emissions control program focused on the short-lived compounds could roughly halve the projected warming between the present and 2050. While slowing the warming through this approach might seem to also offer additional time for cutting CO2 emissions, this is not the case. Instead, these actions are more appropriately viewed as partially making up for earlier policy delays.

For the United States to do its share, aggressive limits on CO2 emissions must be complemented by aggressive limits of emissions of short-lived species. In particular, the Environmental Protection Agency will need to be more aggressive in cutting short-lived emissions, particularly of methane from the oil and gas industry, and making its voluntary methane and black carbon programs mandatory.

With climate change so far along, the question now is no longer whether impacts can be avoided, but rather how bad they will become. What we do with respect to both mitigation and adaptation will control that outcome. The longer we wait, the worse the impacts and sharper the required energy transition."

While methane gradually breaks down in the atmosphere, forming carbon dioxide, it has 100 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide for the first 20 years it’s exposed to the environment. A study by Cornell University Environmental Biology Professor Robert Howarth found between four and eight percent of the methane produced by a fracking well is leaked into the atmosphere during the well’s lifetime. For all the immediate environmental benefits of natural gas, the methods used for its extraction could create a larger greenhouse footprint than oil or coal over time.

EPA is considering a new national PM pollution standard because of its public health impacts and should use the opportunity to win deeper cuts that offer so many "co-benefits." Every reduction in soot is now doubly important. Cars, cement kilns, coal plants, and just about any industrial boiler or furnace spews out PM. They all need to be targeted as part of a larger effort to bring this kind of pollution under better control.

This impact on global warming is also one more reason why Dallas residents should be demanding that the city incorporate some kind of "off-sets" policy regarding new oil and gas air pollution as part of a new City drilling ordinance. Not only can it hep reduce smog and some of the toxins released by the drilling and processing of natural gas; it can also provide some needed help for climate change at a time when the city is just squeaking by its own greenhouse gas reduction goals.

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