I’ve long felt that one of my great failings as a climate communicator has come in trying to get across the dangers posed by methane, the second most damaging greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide. Despite long years of many people trying to underscore the risks of methane, our go-to shorthand for climate pollution remains “carbon.”
That’s why companies and political leaders boast about how much they’ve reduced their carbon emissions, but, if they managed the trick by substituting gas for coal, their total contribution to global warming has barely budged—because natural gas is another word for methane, and because when it invariably leaks from frack wells and pipelines it traps heat, molecule for molecule, much more effectively than CO2.
Now, finally, methane appears to be having its day in the sun. A key thing to understand about methane (CH4) is that it doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere anywhere near as long as CO2: its life span is measured in decades, not centuries.
While methane is in the air, it traps a lot of heat, but a dramatic reduction in the amount of CH4 would be a quick fix that would help slow the rise of global temperatures, giving us more time to work on the carbon quandary. As Stanford University’s Rob Jackson told me, last week, the best estimate is that methane caused about a third of the global warming we’ve seen in the past decade, not far behind the contributions of CO2.
The first way to reduce methane in the atmosphere, of course, is to stop building anything new that’s connected to gas: stop installing gas cooktops and gas furnaces, and substitute electrical appliances. And stop building new gas-fired power plants, instead substituting sun, wind, and battery power. And, as a really important new study by the star energy academics Bob Howarth and Mark Jacobson emphasizes, by all means do not start using natural gas to produce hydrogen, even if you’re capturing the carbon emissions from the process.
This so-called “blue hydrogen,” beloved by oil and gas companies, and included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, does not cut global-warming emissions, in large part because of the methane that vents out in the process. If we have to live with some natural gas for a while (and there are an awful lot of furnaces that will take years to switch out), then we should reduce leaks as best we can—a process made infinitely harder by the Trump Administration’s decision to stop monitoring the problem at all.
But methane doesn’t just—or even mostly—come from fossil fuels. It’s also emitted by cattle, by rice production, and, naturally, from wetlands. Our actions are making these sources bigger—we’re raising more cattle, for instance, and, as temperatures rise, marshes give off more of the gas. Scientists continue to fear that truly huge increases in methane could come from a warming Arctic, both from thawing permafrost and from underwater methane clathrates, or methane ice formations, which are likely to melt as temperatures rise. (Russian researchers continue to find clues that such releases may be beginning, but so far the spike in methane seems to be coming from other sources.)
Given both the threat and the opportunity, some scientists have begun wondering whether there might be ways to scrub some methane from the atmosphere. As with carbon dioxide, you can remove CH4 with “direct air capture,” which uses machines that filter the atmosphere to remove the molecules. But, as with CO2, this is, for the moment anyway, too expensive to do at scale. So a group of scientists at the California nonprofit Methane Action is looking at ways to catalyze reactions in the atmosphere that could transform the methane, and they think they may have found a method that makes use of ship smokestacks. Daphne Wysham, a veteran environmentalist and the group’s C.E.O., explains, “Many ships now burn bunker fuels that contain iron. While bunker fuels are terribly polluting, one positive aspect of the combustion of bunker fuels with iron is that they may be inadvertently enhancing one of two natural ‘sinks’ for methane—the chlorine atom.
Our scientists hypothesize that, when bunker fuel is burned, iron particles end up in the smokestack of the ship, and that the mix of iron, sunshine, and salt-sea spray is generating a mixture of iron trichloride and chlorine atoms, which may be oxidizing methane in the ship’s plume.
To prove that hypothesis, a crew from the Netherlands plans to measure the chlorine chemistry of these shipping plumes, using special equipment to discover whether or not the methane is being oxidized in conjunction with the chlorine radicals given off by the sea spray.” (An interesting irony: on Friday, James Hansen, the world’s premier climate scientist, reported that one reason temperatures are rising right now is, as we necessarily switch off fossil fuels, the lowered levels of aerosol pollution in the atmosphere result in fewer clouds of smog blocking the sun. It is, as Hansen put it, a Faustian bargain come due. And one place that pollution is being reduced, he says, is in shipborne emissions, as mariners turn to cleaner fuels.)
If the Methane Action team’s hypothesis pans out, the scientists, most of whom are European, might be able to figure out how to amp up the scale of the reaction, to remove larger quantities of methane.
They have proceeded carefully, getting scores of prominent climate experts to endorse studying the idea—Americans will recognize some of them, such as Michael Mann, of Penn State. (The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave the idea a nod in its most recent report.) Mann’s an interesting champion because, like many people in the climate movement, he has been unenthusiastic about the rapid adoption of another experiment that seems superficially similar: plans to “geoengineer” the atmosphere by pouring sulfur into it to block some of the sun’s rays.
There are major differences between these experiments. First, as Wysham points out, the smokestack “experiment is already underway, inadvertently, with iron in bunker fuels.” Second, the moral-hazard argument—the idea that, if you block the sun, oil companies will use it as an excuse to keep churning out fossil fuels—seems a little less pressing in this case: methane removal could become a tool for the fossil-fuel industry to keep fracking for natural gas, but most of the methane that must be removed actually doesn’t come from fossil fuels.
Job No. 1 is to end the combustion of fossil fuels, and fast; nothing can get in the way of that. But if, while we fight the fight, there are methods to ease the heat a little without tossing Big Oil a new lifeline, those are worth investigating.
Passing the Mic
Sunrun, the largest rooftop-solar-panel installer in the country, announced earlier this month that it had hired Mary Powell as its C.E.O. After a career making protective outerwear for dogs, Powell ran Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s main utility, where she focussed on sustainability. (Among other accomplishments, Green Mountain is the only utility in the country to have divested its pension fund from fossil fuels.) I wrote about some of Powell’s work in 2015, and got in touch with her again when I heard about her new appointment. (Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
What do you bring from the world of utilities that will inform your work at Sunrun? How do utilities need to change to meet this challenge?
I plan to use my experience to help advance much faster adoption of solar power at the utilities. Fundamentally, it is about shifting from a culture of “no” to a culture of “yes.” We must embrace as much radical collaboration as possible. This isn’t about us versus them; this is about how we can get more renewables on the grid faster to make a more resilient and affordable system for customers.
Saul Griffith, in his forthcoming book, “Electrify,” points out that it’s about three times as expensive to install rooftop solar power in the U.S. as in Australia. How are we going to cut those costs quickly?
I’m a big fan of Saul and the work that he’s doing to help show people how to transition our energy system away from fossil fuels. In the U.S., we have a lot of what are called “soft costs.” We have more than twenty thousand local jurisdictions across the country, and the majority of them have different permitting requirements for installing solar and home batteries. This is why I was thrilled to see that the Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, recently launched a tool called SolarAPP+, which is a free software program that streamlines and significantly shortens the permitting process, and will save several thousand dollars per solar install. Lynn Jurich, the outgoing Sunrun C.E.O., has been heavily involved with SolarAPP+, and the impact it will have is quite significant. We are encouraging more and more cities and counties to sign up.
Sunrun reported record growth in installations this year. What will you need from the government to keep toppling that record each year, and how much of that amount is in the various infrastructure bills?
I believe that the best way to fight climate change is to fully electrify our homes, by outfitting them with electric appliances and powering them with on-site renewable energy. This is why Sunrun started installing batteries several years ago and, recently, why we partnered with Ford to develop a bidirectional charger, so that people can power their homes with clean energy day or night.
The clean-energy policies that Congress is considering via the budget-reconciliation process represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to deploy the technologies we have today at a pace commensurate with the climate challenge. The investment tax credit, in particular, has been the most important federal policy to deploy solar, and a long-term extension of it will help us deploy more solar and batteries faster. We also hope to see “adder” credits for low-income Americans and residents of disadvantaged communities. Finally, Senator Martin Heinrich has introduced the Zero-Emission Homes Act, which would provide consumer rebates to help decarbonize homes, where decisions are made that account for forty-two per cent of our carbon emissions (according to Rewiring America).
Prospects for a robust climate conclave in Glasgow this November increased last week, when Greta Thunberg, who’d previously planned to stay away, said that she will likely attend, now that U.N. officials have worked out a plan to make sure that representatives from countries where vaccines are scarce will be fully represented. “When these extreme weather events are happening, many say, what will it take for people in power to start acting? What are they waiting for?” Thunberg said, in an interview with Reuters. “And it will take many things, but especially, it will take massive pressure from the public.”
Last week, “for the first time in recorded history,” smoke from wildfires darkened the skies above the North Pole. The blazes are in Siberia, and they are bigger than all the other fires currently burning in the world combined.
Last week, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change explained that the reason his country is expanding a pipeline to carry tar-sands oil to the Pacific is because it needs the revenue to fight climate change. “What we’re doing is saying it’s got to be part of the transition, but part of the transition is being able to raise the revenues that enable you to actually make the investments that are required to go there.” Got that?
We’ve reached the point where candidates are running for important jobs based largely on their climate plans. Eric Orts, a professor at the Wharton School, has joined the crowded Democratic primary field for the Pennsylvania Senate seat that will be vacated by the Republican Pat Toomey, and his climate platform couldn’t be much more detailed or comprehensive (or much easier for others to copy from as a template).
Every day, there are stories from around the world about flood or fire—this one is about extensive flooding in Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon. As a local U.N. humanitarian representative told Reuters, “in West and Central Africa the floods have doubled between 2015 and 2020.” When I hear stories like this, I sometimes go and look up the carbon emissions of the people involved, to remind myself of the rank injustice at work. So, for the record, the average citizen of Cameroon emits 0.4 tons of carbon a year, compared with 15.5 tons for the average American.
David Sirota and Julia Rock offer a fascinating insight into the new census data: Americans are continuing to move into precisely the places most at risk from climate change, such as Phoenix (which saw an eleven-per-cent increase in population) or the Gulf Coast of Texas, which combines heat risk with the danger of flooding. Sirota and Rock write, “If climate change were an enemy in a war, America is not fortifying our population in the safest places—the country’s population is moving into the areas most at risk of attack.”
Amid the gloom surrounding the I.P.C.C. report, the Australian climate activist Blair Palese offers ten reasons for at least a little hope. No. 4: “The EU’s recent announcement of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM, or what’s often referred to as a carbon border tax) is the first real financial mechanism that can be used to punish climate laggards. The idea of green trading zones between climate leaders that leaves laggards behind, sanctions, and, ultimately, FOMO: Fear of missing out on the massive market opportunity of new low-carbon technology are all important. Time to move from threatening with these sticks to wielding them.”
Mike Brune announced his retirement as the executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental group in the country. The nonprofit has had three legendary leaders: John Muir, who saved Yosemite but whose white-supremacist views were later condemned by the organization; David Brower, who saved the Grand Canyon; and Brune, under whose leadership the Club helped shut down or block scores of coal-fired power plants. The temptation for directors of big and powerful organizations is to play it safe; Brune was always willing to stand up, even to Democratic Administrations, and hence he played a key role in climate fights, including the battle over the Keystone pipeline.
Two videos from the Bay Area. Youth Vs Apocalypse are veterans of the climate fight, and their new music video, which includes some divestment advocacy, asks the excellent question “Where’s the Money At?” And watch the San Francisco artist Georgia Hodges painting a massive mural backing the Green New Deal—and figuring out what to do when a counter-muralist daubed “Commie Propaganda” across her work.