CLIMATE CHANGE SHORTCUT: Cutting methane from coal mines, particularly in China, is the most effective of 14 actions that could restrain global warming in the near future. Image: Courtesy of U.S. Office of Mine Safety and Health Research
Humanity has done little to address climate change. Global emissions of carbon dioxide reached (another) all-time peak in 2010. The most recent international talks to craft a global treaty to address the problem pushed off major action until 2020. Fortunately, there's an alternative—curbing the other greenhouse gases.
Specifically, in the case of rapid action to slow catastrophic climate change, the best alternatives appear to be: methane and black carbon (otherwise known as soot). A new economic and scientific analysis published in Science on January 13 of the benefits of cutting these two greenhouse gases finds the benefits to be manifold—from human health to increased agricultural yields.
Even better, by analyzing some 400 potential soot- and methane-emission control measures, the international team of researchers found that just 14 deliver "nearly 90 percent" of the potential benefits. Bonus: the 14 steps also restrain global warming by roughly 0.5 degree Celsius by 2050, according to computer modeling.
That's because both methane and black carbon only remain in the atmosphere for a short time compared with CO2. As atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said of such efforts to reduce atmospheric soot a few years ago: "If the world pays attention and puts resources to it, we will see an effect immediately. I'm talking weeks, at most a few months, not decades or centuries."
The 14 measures that would immediately slow global warming are:
—Eliminate methane releases from coal mines—particularly in China—by capturing it and burning it.
—Eliminate the venting or accidental release of methane co-produced by oil drilling (and, of course, gas drilling itself), particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Russia.
—Capture gas from landfills in the U.S. and China as well as promote recycling and composting of biodegradable trash.
—Occasionally aerate flooded rice paddies to prevent the growth of methane-producing microbes.
—Stop leaks from natural gas pipelines, particularly in Russia.
—Use bio-digesters—vessels in which microbes break down manure into gas—to cut methane from livestock globally.
—Update wastewater treatment plants to capture methane.
—Filter the soot produced by incomplete combustion of diesel fuel in vehicles, and attempt to eliminate inefficient internal combustion engine vehicles entirely.
—Replace indoor cooking and heating fires with clean-burning cookstoves fired either by wood, manure or other biomass or, even better, methane.
—Replace traditional brick kilns with more advanced firing methods.
—Replace traditional ovens for turning coal to coke with modern technologies.
—Ban the open burning of crop stubble and other agricultural waste.
The researchers estimate that cutting those 14 together could avoid between 700,000 and 4.7 million premature deaths (largely from smoky, unhealthy air) and increase crop yields by between 30 million and 135 million metric tons (due to concomitant reductions in ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog, which forms from fugitive methane and blights crops in Brazil, China, India, the U.S. and elsewhere). In addition, the economic analysis suggests that many of these measures provide more value in benefits than they cost to implement.