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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 3

A Figurative War to Replace a Real One

Curbing methane and soot may be a fast, if incomplete, way to slow global warming

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. An economic and scientific analysis published in January in the journal Science found that taking steps to curb methane and black carbon (otherwise known as soot) could improve air quality, human health and agricultural yields. Even better, the team found that implementing just 14 soot and methane emissions-control measures globally would deliver nearly 90 percent of the potential benefits. An extra bonus: the 14 steps also curb global warming by roughly 0.5 degree Celsius by 2050, according to computer modeling.

Both methane and black carbon remain in the atmosphere for a short time compared with CO2. By some accounts, we could see an effect within weeks or months, rather than decades, as with CO2 emissions. The methods that would immediately slow global warming include eliminating methane releases from coal mines by capturing the gas and burning it; eliminating the venting or accidental release of methane co-produced by oil and gas drilling; capturing the gas from landfills in the U.S. and China; and promoting the recycling and composting of biodegradable trash.

This doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have to deal with CO2 emissions. By continuing to emit at present rates, we’d still be storing up future trouble. But starting with soot and methane would buy time and, perhaps even more important, significantly reduce the chances of catastrophic climate change.

This article was published in print as "Soot Soldiers."

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