To slow climate change we can't "pick a lesser evil"

Steven Hamburg

Editor’s note: The number used in this blog post to describe the heat-trapping strength of methane compared with carbon dioxide, while accurate, has been updated with one that is more widely used among experts. 

Not all climate pollutants are created equal. That’s the case New York Times reporter Justin Gillis makes in his July 7 column, “Picking the Lesser of Two Climate Evils.”

Gillis quotes a prominent scientist who suggests that when it comes to climate change, controlling methane pollution should take a back seat to addressing carbon dioxide.

I believe that’s a false choice; there’s no reason to pick one or the other. In fact, any effective climate policy must target both.

That is the only way to achieve the maximum potential greenhouse gas reductions, and the maximum possible climate benefit in the near and long term.

We can’t afford to ignore methane…

There is no dispute that the most damaging long-lived climate pollutant is carbon dioxide, and about half of what is emitted will remain in the atmosphere – lasting at least a thousand years. While individual carbon dioxide molecules weakly absorb heat, they become collectively potent as they accumulate in the atmosphere over time.

On the other hand, methane – the most damaging short-lived climate pollutant – traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years after being released, but only lasts for a decade or so in the atmosphere.

Each plays a different, yet critical role in negatively affecting the environment and triggering more intense storms and other extreme weather events.

Climate policy needs to ensure that we are addressing the impacts on people and ecosystems both today and 100 or more years from now. Reducing methane is essential to reducing near-term impacts; reducing carbon dioxide is essential for the long term.

To choose between them would be to trade off impacts among generations – an unacceptable choice.

Each plays a different, yet critical role…affecting the environment and triggering more intense storms and other extreme weather events.

Effective national climate policy can address both – the actions required are largely distinct and complementary.

More than a third of the warming we feel today is caused by short-lived climate pollutants including methane, which accounts for most of that amount. These emissions are intensifying already extreme weather patterns such as long droughts and high temperatures in many parts of the country and the enormous impacts we are witnessing with increasing frequency.

Working to reduce methane emissions is one of the most effective steps we can take to slow near-term climate change. Emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane, are essential to slow the rate of warming over the next couple of decades.

…nor can we ignore carbon dioxide

The next 20-30 years are also critical to our ability to address long-term climate change by bending the curve of carbon dioxide emissions as quickly as is possible. Without addressing methane and carbon dioxide emissions, we lose the opportunity to maximize the benefits of climate change efforts.

Let’s not waste time arguing about which is most important, because they both matter a great deal.   

And make no mistake: We absolutely need to remain focused on CO2 emissions reductions: A critical piece EDF’s climate agenda focuses on that goal.

Curbing methane costs 1 penny for each $4 earned

Gillis implies that reducing methane emissions could divert resources from CO2 reduction; in reality, cutting methane doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor.

A recent report by independent energy consulting firm ICF International found that 40 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry can be eliminated over the next five years at a cost of less than a penny per a thousand cubic feet of produced natural gas – that’s roughly one penny spent for every $4 earned.

And these emissions reductions can be achieved by using technologies already available and on the market today. That’s an easy ask that packs a huge punch.

Let’s get to work

In the end, Gillis comes down in favor of “a two-pronged attack on climate change … far more aggressive methane control to slow global warming for the benefit of people alive today, along with aggressive CO2 control for the benefit of future generations.”

That is a sensible conclusion. Methane and CO2 are not an either-or option. It’s our ethical responsibility to do everything in our power to limit the impacts of the damaging pollution we’ve created.

To meet that obligation we need to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions as quickly as possible. Let’s get on with the work needed to make that a reality. 

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