It’s probably human nature to seize on stories that provide even a glimmer of hope to counter the relentless warnings about the short time we have to act on prevent irreversible climate change. No wonder news accounts of a new study in Science suggesting how to cut warming in the near term buoyed our spirits with rosy headlines like “Climate Proposal Puts Practicality ahead of Sacrifice” in the Times (January 17) and “Groundbreaking New Study Shows How to Reduce Near-Term Global Warming” over a post by Andrew Freedman on Climate Change (January 12). Besides, in the journal scientists, led by NASA researcher Drew Shindell, not policymakers, told us how to seize the moment by cutting the amount of methane and black carbon (aka “soot”) spewed into the atmosphere. Both are short-lived pollutants, and it is estimated that they account for about half of the warming the earth has experienced so far. The good news is clear. According to Freedman, “Shindell and his colleagues found that the 14 emissions reduction actions they zeroed in on would be relatively cheap, and can be implemented with existing technologies.”
There is a potential downside to the report, however, or rather to seizing on its good news as an answer to our problems. It sounds like we can buy some time, but that’s not the case, according to Lou Grinzo on Planet 3.0; it’s telling that the headline to his post ends in a question mark: “A shortcut to restraining climate change?” Grinzo cautions that the Times news story put too optimistic a face on the study and that although Freedman’s headline sounds pie-in-the sky as well, his post emphasizes the need to do both: reduce CO2 and the shorter-lived gases. (Burning soot-producing fuels such as wood and dung in developing countries causes many health problems, providing another incentive to eliminate that contribution to warming.) For example, Freedman quotes the lead researcher as saying, “It would be a bad thing if this were a substitute for action on CO2.”
Grinzo notes that even though the solutions to methane and black carbon seem practical, they will not be put into place without resistance, political and economic as well as practical. While we can tackle the leaks from natural gas lines, mines, and landfills, what about the significant amounts of methane emitted by the agriculture industry? As he says, “Enteric fermentation (i.e., farm animal belches and flatulence), manure management, and wastewater treatment all present challenging scenarios, to put it mildly.”
Still, I’ll end on a glass-half-full note, with Freedman’s last paragraph and a couple of links: “Given the seemingly endless stream of depressing climate change news, some confidence-building measures, such as the ones analyzed in the study, could be exactly what we need.” If you want to help, visit The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) media page to read feature stories about their work to improve efficiency of cookstoves used by billions of people worldwide and donate if you are convinced. Also, see Berkeley researcher Daniel M. Kammen’s paper on the various stove models that have been tested (with illustrations).
Update (Jan. 29): The Feb. 3 issue of The Week summarized an Agence France-Pressestory in 200 words, with a sunny headline and a photo caption reading “Should we fight soot instead of CO2?”
A new strategy to slow climate change
The world could make a big dent in global warming without reducing fossil fuel emissions, says an international team of scientists. Given the strong resistance to curbing fossil fuels, they say, policymakers could buy some time by shifting their focus to reducing emissions of soot and methane. “In the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable, and it brings fast benefits,” Drew Shindell, a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, tells Agence France-Presse. Soot, or black carbon, is produced by unfiltered diesel engines, inefficient boilers, and, in the developing world, cookstoves and kilns. Particularly when it falls on snowpack and ice, soot helps heat the planet by absorbing radiation from the sun. Methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere far more effectively than carbon dioxide does, leaks in great quantities from oil- and gas-producing facilities, coal mines, pipelines, sewage plants, and farm ponds. Using existing technologies, we could capture much of this methane and soot before it reaches the atmosphere, and reduce projected warming by more than a third. As a result, the amount of warming expected by 2050 would be lower by about one degree Fahrenheit. Reducing soot and methane are “things we know how to do and have done,” Shindell says. “We just haven’t done them worldwide.”
This blog would be easier to write if I just linked to sunny digests like this, but it wouldn’t be the whole story, and we should be realistic about what we face.