Covering the Coverage: Scientists Propose Cuts in Methane, Soot Emissions

A paper published yesterday in the journal Science shows the tremendous climate change, public health, and crop yield benefits that could come from reducing emissions of soot and methane, both of which contribute to global warming but don’t stay in the air nearly as long as carbon dioxide (CO2), the main climate change villain. As I reported yesterday, the proposals contained in the study could slash the rate of global warming nearly in half through 2050, while saving up to 4.7 million lives annually and boosting crop yields. 

The study was widely covered by other media outlets, some of which added some important elements and perspectives to the story. 

Biomass burning is a major source of soot (black carbon) emissions. According to a new study,  eliminating agricultural burning would reduce black carbon emissions by seven percent and methane emissions by one percent. Credit: NASA/UN.

One of the attractive aspects of focusing on non-CO2 global warming agents is that it offers the prospect of progress despite the global stalemate in international climate talks. Like I did, NPR spoke with Durwood Zaelke, who leads the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, about the need to address short-lived global warming agents. 

Zaelke provided NPR with an entertaining analogy to describe the need to reduce non-CO2 warming agents.

“Zaelke is a grizzled veteran of the climate wars: He was in Kyoto in 1997 when the world's nations drafted a treaty promising to curb warming, and he has watched that promise fizzle while the planet's temperature continues to rise,” NPR reported.

Zaelke says the Kyoto treaty focused too much on the main greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide.

“I mean, it's like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard,” he says with a note of lament. “You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We've made about that much progress with CO2.”

Several stories noted that although steps to reduce methane and soot emissions may be easier to implement than cutting CO2 emissions, they still aren’t very simple either. 

Residential cook stoves are a major source of black carbon, particularly in Asia and Africa. Credit: NASA/University of California, San Diego.

For example, the Washington Post called attention to the challenge of getting about 3 billion people in the developing world to switch to cleaner burning cookstoves, since cookstoves that burn coal or biomass are a leading source of soot emissions. From the Post story:

“... getting people to switch to cleaner-burning stoves is “easier said than done,” said Elizabeth Ransom, a spokeswoman for University Research. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the group recently doled out $1.3 million in grants to three groups studying how to get people in Uganda and India to adopt cleaner-burning stoves, as some projects to introduce modern stoves “just didn’t take off.”

The Post reported that the U.S. has not spent much money on international methane and soot emissions reductions — $60 million on overseas methane reduction projects, and $5 million for a program to reduce soot emissions in Russia to limit Arctic warming. 

Over at OnEarth, Dave Levitan also mentions the clean cookstoves challenge, and notes that companies need incentives in order to reduce methane leaks from pipelines and oil and gas refineries, since some of these fixes may be relatively costly. Levitan writes:

“Or how about reducing methane leaks from pipelines and oil and gas production facilities? Again, this isn't a matter of flipping a switch. Just in the U.S., enough gas leaks from such infrastructure each year to match the emissions from 35 million cars. Until energy companies have some economic reason to tighten those loose pipe fittings—say, a carbon tax—the gas is likely to continue flowing.

Lastly, Seth Borenstein of the AP breaks down some of the key numbers detailed in the study, writing: 

If adopted more widely, the scientists calculate that would reduce projected global warming by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) by the year 2050. Without the measures, global average temperature is projected to rise nearly 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) in the next four decades. But controlling methane and soot, the increase is projected to be only 1.3 degrees (0.7 degrees Celsius). It also would increase annual yield of key crops worldwide by almost 150 million tons (135 million metric tons).

Borenstein spoke with outside experts about the study’s findings. He contacted John D. Graham, who oversaw regulations at the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration and is now a dean at Indiana University. Graham spoke favorably about the research, saying: “This is an important study that deserves serious consideration by policy makers as well as scientists.”

Another outside expert, climate scientist Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria in Canada, told Borenstein that the study is good news amid a sea of gloomy reports about climate change. “This is a no-brainer,” he said. “We have solutions at hand.”