A report from Radio Ecoshock.
– Alex Smith
This is the third in a series of broadcasts about the American-led alternative to controlling carbon dioxide emissions, in the desperate fight to control global climate change. The first part was an interview with Dr. Phil Austen an atmospheric scientist. That was followed by a primer on methane: what it is, where it comes from, and how it damages both our health and the climate. These can be downloaded from our website at www.ecoshock.org.
Now we look at the American program to control methane, as proposed by top NASA scientists, and as adopted by several industrialized countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and lately Canada. Can it work? Or will we fry?
A group of scientists from Harvard University, the Argonne National Laboratory and the EPA say that both air pollution and global warming could be mitigated by controlling methane gas. You will hear this proposal coming from various governments: “We’ll fight smog, for your personal health, and stave off global warming – all at the same time!” Let’s investigate.
In addition to its own global warming potential, methane is directly related to the production of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) – and ozone is also a greenhouse gas (as well as a killing agent in smog). The IPCC predicts more and more intense ozone pollution and smog by the year 2030, despite pollution control efforts. While the smog inducing nitrous oxides may decline up to 10% in developed countries, it is expected to increase by 130% in developing countries. And the A1 scenario from the IPCC predicts methane emissions could increase by 43 percent globally by 2030. That is why there could be worse global smog, despite localized benefits from pollution controls by industrialized countries.
In one example of this trend of linking smog and global warming, Arlene M. Fiore wrote an article in Geophysical Research letters in October 2002. Where there is plenty of methane, in the presence of nitrous oxide and sunlight, smog is the inevitable result, and much of that is so-called ground-level ozone, a Greenhouse Gas. If we could limit methane, while cleaning up nitrous oxide, we could curb smog and global warming at the same time, the argument goes.
An even stronger case for going after trace gases like methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide was made by James Hansen, the climate expert from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. Hansen has a long career in the field, and is well-regarded by environmentalists. He was the subject of recent news articles claiming to be muzzled by the Bush Whitehouse.
According to an article in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, Hansen and Makiko Sato claim that the climate could be stabilized with warming less than 1 degree, just by reducing methane and other trace gases – even if carbon dioxide zooms up to 520 parts per million. The authors suggested adding these trace gases to the Montreal Protocol, as a method of control.
Here is what Hansen said about it:
“”Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas (GHG), and slowdown of its emissions must have priority. It will be a growing issue in international relations for decades, if not longer,” …. “However, that does not necessarily mean that ‘Kyoto’ is the best way to address the trace gases. ‘Kyoto’ gives too little or no weight to gases such as methane, the trace gas HFC-134a, ozone and the precursor gases that form ozone. We could get moving now on non-carbon dioxide gases with benefits such as improved human health, in addition to a slowing of global warming. The resulting international good will might also make discussions about carbon dioxide more productive.”
These scientists add that controlling human-made trace gases could more rapidly control warming, and so reduce the positive feed-back loops that could release natural methane from such sources as frozen methane (called clathrates) in the ocean, or from the Siberian permafrost melting.
This approach was also promoted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Jos Lelieveld, at atmosphere chemist there, says:
“”It will be very difficult to control carbon dioxide in the short-term future. Not only because of energy [consumption] and political consequences, but also because the lifetime of carbon dioxide is enormously long.”…
“And so if climate change is really affecting our daily lives in a really undesirable way-like stronger hurricanes or more droughts in some areas-then there may be the desire to do something on the short term.” …
“One of the few alternatives that we have there is to reduce methane.”
So the American approach, under the pro-oil Bush administration, is to combine efforts to fight smog, with the battle to control global warming. As there is no effort from the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluter to limit CO2, the methane and trace gas approach is not just Plan A – it is their only plan. That is why we have to understand methane, ozone, and other trace gases – to find out whether this is just more fantasy, or a real plan that could work.
Another NASA scientist, Drew Shindell is calling for a whole new way of studying greenhouse gases. The IPCC scientists have generally totaled the amount of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to create models of expected climate change. Shindell says we have to look closer to the Earth’s surface, to see where these gases are coming from, and how they interact chemically, before they end up as totals in the upper atmosphere.
For example, just knowing the raw data on the amount of methane produced doesn’t give a good picture. Methane reacts with other chemicals, such as nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide from automobile and industrial exhausts, to change atmospheric chemistry, including producing more ground-level ozone.
Shindell’s study suggests that methane may have double the impact on global warming, compared to previous calculations. The IPCC, just looking at the total amount of methane accumulated, attributed about one sixth of global warming was due to methane. But when all the chemical reactions related to methane are added, including the tropospheric ozone, methane may be responsible for as much as one third of the climate change we are seeing.
“If we control methane, which the U.S. is already starting to do, then we are likely to mitigate global warming more than one would have thought, so that’s a very positive outcome,” …. “Control of methane emissions turns out to be a more powerful lever to control global warming than would be anticipated.”
And we have another paper forwarded by James Hansen, in January 2006, by Arlene Fiore and other scientists, titled “Global health benefits of mitigating ozone pollution with methane emission controls.” The authors argue that controlling methane will greatly reduce human deaths from pollution, because it reduces surface ozone as well. The savings in greenhouse gases are a bonus to cutting smog, they argue.
According to this study, reducing human-made methane emissions by just 20 percent, beginning in 2010, could prevent 30,000 deaths around the world in 2030. Whether that makes sense economically depends on how we value the added years to human lives. Is it cost-effective, when each extended life costs about $420,000 in methane control costs? For a Westerner, or if it happens to be your own life, or someone you love, you would answer “yes.” Still, the main emphasis is reducing human deaths from air pollution, by controlling methane, rather than saving planetary life by controlling carbon dioxide, the gas considered by most to be the main actor in runaway climate change.
Meanwhile, other studies indicate that all countries are emitting far more methane than they declare. Bergamachi, for example, suggests the UK released 4.2 million tonnes of methane in 2004, instead of the 2.1 million tonnes declared by the government. During this study, the German government raised its estimates of methane emissions by 70%.
And that’s in Europe. The largest sources, China, Russia, and India, don’t really know how much methane they are releasing, and have very little in place to stop the hemorrhaging of this powerful greenhouse gas.
When we measure total methane in the atmosphere, the recent annual increases are being kept in check, in just the last few years, by some natural agent. We don’t know what that protective mechanism may be, or how temporary it is. We could see a methane surge, with temperatures going up one to three degrees globally in a few years. That is possible.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The single largest source of methane in the developed countries is landfills leaking methane from the mountains of pointless consumer waste. If you demand less packaging, recycle more, and waste less, methane could be substantially reduced.
Your second personal option is also quite straight forward. Become a Vegan – a vegetarian with no animal products or bi-products. That’s the solution offered by a group called EarthSave. At www.earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm you can find the controversial article titled “A New Global Warming Strategy: How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes,” by Noam Mohr.
Animal husbandry may be the single largest human-made source of methane on the planet, when you add direct emissions from the animals, plus the gases coming from treatment of manure.
We have a massive increase of meat eating – 5 times more meat in North America, for instance. That is matched by a massive increase in the number of cows, pigs, and sheep. There are over a billion cows eating their way through feed grown with fossil fuels. In fact, modern agriculture uses natural gas – methane – to produce fertilizer. That gas leaks at production sites, at refineries, in pipelines, and in final use.
An article in the New Scientist in December, 2005 said that when all these fossil fuel inputs to factory farmed meat are considered, plus the methane produced by animals, you do more for the planet by changing to a Vegan diet, than buying a hybrid car. A meat eater produces the equivalent of almost 1.5 tonnes more carbon dioxide annually than a Vegan does.
The exact figures for animal use, and a proposal to trim back methane through changes of diet have not been considered seriously. Obviously, we’d rather burn in Hell than give up the burgers for a healthier diet, and a safer atmosphere.
WHAT ARE GOVERNMENTS ARE DOING?
Since the United States has no coherent plan to reduce carbon dioxide, it has invested a relatively small portion of its budget in a single plan, as proposed by it’s NASA scientists, to reduce methane and other trace greenhouse gases. The Bush administration has actually reduced American methane emissions to 5% below 1990 levels, a kind of Kyoto for trace gases.
This effort is led by the Environmental Protection Agency, and spans many different government departments. It’s called the Methane to Markets Partnership. For example, the government has helped coal mines in America capture methane to run power operations, and aided local governments who want to install methane capture devices to landfills. This government likes methane programs because they capture energy that has re-sale and re-use value, whereas carbon capture is more or less a straight expense with little payback, if any.
The Methane to Markets Partnership has been promoted as an international effort. So far Australia, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and most recently Canada, have become partners in the program. Each country tries to reduce its methane by recovering it.
Notice that the largest methane producers, Russia, China, India, and Brazil are not partners in this America effort. However, the Americans have invested a few million dollars in pilot projects in Asia. In 2006, the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility is spending 7 million dollars, over 5 years!, to “support a comprehensive approach” to reduce the impact of concentrated livestock production there. Hardly a major investment in one of the top methane producing countries.
It’s difficult to see how a global supply of this powerful greenhouse gas can be reined in without a much larger commitment by all countries, and a huge budget to implement it. In addition, the sources of methane are very diverse. Can we really re-work the way all Chinese and other Asian rice paddies are planted? Does the government of India have the control and resources to deliver top quality feed to all its cattle? Plus manure processing with methane capture facilities? Can we re-educate every peasant farmer?
What happens if the current methane capping mechanism, whatever that turns out to be, breaks down? What happens if natural sources of methane are released in large quantities, as a feed-back and bi-product of global warming, caused by uncontrolled carbon dioxide levels?
As a plan to save the planet, the methane fix has holes larger than the growing ozone hole in the stratosphere. We may please city dwellers by cutting down smog. We may have interesting looking pipes and plants to recapture methane in a few places. We may even reduce world-wide emissions of methane from human sources – and we must. But the methane scheme is just a secondary alternative to facing the carbon beast head on. Sadly, it looks like a political fix for an oil-based White House, and their supporting cast of other oil burners around the world.
Find out more about climate change from Radio Ecoshock, full-time environment radio, and downloadable broadcasts, at www.ecoshock.org.