Study reveals what natural greenhouse emissions from wetlands and permafrosts mean for Paris Agreement targets

July 9, 2018 by Simon Williams, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
emissions
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Global fossil fuel emissions would have to be reduced by as much as 20% more than previous estimates to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, because of natural greenhouse gas emissions from wetlands and permafrost, new research has found.

The additional reductions are equivalent to 5-6 years of  from human activities at current rates, according to a new paper led by the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement aims to keep “the global average temperature increase to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”.

The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience today (July 9, 2018) uses a novel form of  model where a specified temperature  is used to calculate the compatible .

The model simulations estimate the natural wetland and  response to climate change, including their , and the implications for human fossil-fuel emissions.

Natural wetlands are very wet regions where the soils emit methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. The methane emissions are larger in warmer soils, so they will increase in a warmer climate.

Permafrost regions are those which are permanently frozen. Under a warming climate, permafrost regions begin to thaw and as a result the soils begin to emit carbon dioxide, and in some cases methane, into the atmosphere.

The greenhouse gas emissions from natural wetland and permafrost increase with global temperature increases, this in turn adds further to global warming creating a “positive feedback” loop.

The results show the “positive feedback” process are disproportionately more important for the  reductions needed to achieve the 1.5 °C target rather than the 2 °C target.

This is because the scientists involved in the study modelled the impact of the additional processes for the time-period 2015-2100, which are broadly similar for the two temperature targets.

However, as the emissions budgets to achieve the 1.5 °C target are half of what is required to meet the 2 °C target, the proportional impact of natural wetlands and  is much larger.

Lead author Dr. Edward Comyn-Platt, a biogeochemist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said: “Greenhouse gas emissions from natural wetlands and permafrost regions are sensitive to climate change, primarily via changes in soil temperature.

“Changes in these emissions will alter the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and must be considered when estimating the human emissions compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Co-author Dr. Sarah Chadburn, of the University of Leeds, said: “We found that permafrost and  get more and more important as we consider lower global warming targets.

“These feedbacks could make it much harder to achieve the target, and our results reinforce the urgency in reducing fossil fuel burning.”

Co-author Prof Chris Huntingford, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “We were surprised at how large these permafrost and wetland feedbacks can be for the low warming target of just 1.5°C.”

The other institutions involved in the research were the University of Exeter, the Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter, the University of Reading and the Joint Centre for Hydrometeorological Research, Wallingford.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-reveals-natural-greenhouse-emissions-wetlands.html#jCp

Advertisements

The US natural gas industry is leaking way more methane than previously thought. Here’s why that matters

Anthony J. Marchese and Dan Zimmerle

Gas oil North Dakota

Getty Images

Natural gas is displacing coal, which could help fight climate change because burning it produces fewer carbon emissions. But producing and transporting natural gas releases methane, a greenhouse gas that also contributes to climate change. How big is the methane problem?

For the past five years, our research teams at Colorado State Universityhave made thousands of methane emissions measurements at more than 700 separate facilities in the productiongatheringprocessingtransmission and storage segments of the natural gas supply chain.

This experience has given us a unique perspective regarding the major sources of methane emissions from natural gas and the challenges the industry faces in terms of detecting and reducing, if not eliminating, them.

More from The Conversation:

California’s Aliso Canyon methane leak: climate disaster or opportunity?

Why utilities have little incentive to plug leaking natural gas

How to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry across North America

Our work, along with numerous other research projects, was recently folded into a new study published in the journal Science. This comprehensive snapshot suggests that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are much higher than current EPA estimates.

“You do not want to give Jeff Bezos a seven-year head start.”
Hear what else Buffett has to say

What’s wrong with methane

One way to quantify the magnitude of the methane leakage is to divide the amount of methane emitted each year by the total amount of methane pumped out of the ground each year from natural gas and oil wells. The EPA currently estimates this methane leak rate to be 1.4 percent. That is, for every cubic foot of natural gas drawn from underground reservoirs, 1.4 percent of it is lost into the atmosphere.

This study synthesized the results from a five-year series of 16 studies coordinated by environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which involved more than 140 researchers from over 40 institutions and 50 natural gas companies.

The effort brought together scholars based at universities, think tanks and the industry itself to make the most accurate estimate possible of the total amount of methane emitted from all U.S. oil and gas operations. It integrated data from a multitude of recent studies with measurements made on the ground and from the air.

All told, based on the results of the new study, the U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking 13 million metric tons of methane each year, which means the methane leak rate is 2.3 percent. This 60 percent difference between our new estimate and the EPA’s current one can have profound climate consequences.

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the climate warming impact of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it is released.

An earlier EDF study showed that a methane leak rate of greater than 3 percent would result in no immediate climate benefits from retiring coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas power plants.

That means even with a 2.3 percent leakage rate, the growing share of U.S. electricity powered by natural gas is doing something to slow the pace of climate change. However, these climate benefits could be far greater.

Also, at a methane leakage rate of 2.3 percent, many other uses of natural gas besides generating electricity are conclusively detrimental for the climate. For example, EDF found that replacing the diesel used in most trucks or the gasoline consumed by most cars with natural gas would require a leakage rate of less than 1.4 percent before there would be any immediate climate benefit.

What’s more, some scientists believe that the leakage rate could be even higher than this new estimate.

What causes these leaks

Perhaps you’ve never contemplated the long journey that natural gas travels before you can ignite the burners on the gas stove in your kitchen.

But on top of the 500,000 natural gas wells operating in the U.S. today, there are 2 million miles of pipes and millions of valves, fittings, tanks, compressors and other components operating 24 hours per day, seven days a week to deliver natural gas to your home.

That natural gas that you burn when you whip up a batch of pancakes may have traveled 1,000 miles or more as it wended through this complicated network. Along the way, there were ample opportunities for some of it to leak out into the atmosphere.

Natural gas leaks can be accidental, caused by malfunctioning equipment, but a lot of natural gas is also released intentionally to perform process operations such as opening and closing valves. In addition, the tens of thousands of compressors that increase the pressure and pump the gas along through the network are powered by engines that burn natural gas and their exhaust contains some unburned natural gas.

Since the natural gas delivered to your home is 85 to 95 percent methane, natural gas leaks are predominantly methane. While methane poses the greatest threat to the climate because of its greenhouse gas potency, natural gas contains other hydrocarbons that can degrade regional air quality and are bad for human health.

Inventory tallies vs. aircraft surveillance

The EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory is done in a way experts like us call a “bottom-up” approach. It entails tallying up all of the nation’s natural gas equipment – from household gas meters to wellpads – and estimating an annualized average emission rate for every category and adding it all up.

There are two challenges to this approach. First, there are no accurate equipment records for many of these categories. Second, when components operate improperly or fail, emissions balloon, making it hard to develop an accurate and meaningful annualized emission rate for each source.

“Top-down” approaches, typically requiring aircraft, are the alternative. They measure methane concentrations upwind and downwind of large geographic areas. But this approach has its own shortcomings.

First, it captures all methane emissions, rather than just the emissions tied to natural gas operations – including the methane from landfills, cows and even the leaves rotting in your backyard. Second, these one-time snapshots may get distorted depending on what’s going on while planes fly around capturing methane data.

Historically, top-down approaches estimate emissions that are about twice bottom-up estimates. Some regional top-down methane leak rate estimates have been as high as 8 percent while some bottom-up estimates have been as low as 1 percent.

More recent work, including the Science study, have performed coordinated campaigns in which the on-the-ground and aircraft measurements are made concurrently, while carefully modeling emission events.

Helpful gadgets and sound policy

On a sunny morning in October 2013, our research team pulled up to a natural gas gathering compressor station in Texas. Using an US$80,000 infrared camera, we immediately located an extraordinarily large leak of colorless, odorless methane that was invisible to the operator who quickly isolated and fixed the problem.

We then witnessed the methane emissions decline tenfold – the facility leak rate fell from 9.8 percent to 0.7 percent before our eyes.

It is not economically feasible, of course, to equip all natural gas workers with $80,000 cameras, or to hire the drivers required to monitor every wellpad on a daily basis when there are 40,000 oil and gas wells in Weld County, Colorado, alone.

But new technologies can make a difference. Our team at Colorado State University is working with the Department of Energy to evaluate gadgetry that will rapidly detect methane emissionsSome of these devices can be deployed today, including inexpensive sensors that can be monitored remotely.

Technology alone won’t solve the problem, however. We believe that slashing the nation’s methane leak rate will require a collaborative effort between industry and government. And based on our experience in Colorado, which has developed some of the nation’s strictest methane emissions regulations, we find that best practices become standard practices with strong regulations.

We believe that the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations, without regard to whether they are working or not, will not only have profound climate impacts. They will also jeopardize the health and safety of all Americans while undercutting efforts by the natural gas industry to cut back on the pollution it produces.

Commentary by Anthony J. Marchese and Dan Zimmerle, a Professor and Research Associate, respectively, covering the subject of Engineering and Energy at Colorado State University. They are also contributors at The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.

As World Shifts to Renewables, Methane Leaks from Oil and Gas Production 60 Percent Greater than EPA Estimate

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27, 2018

Sixty percent more methane escapes from U.S. oil and gas operations than the Environmental Protection Agency currently estimates, according to a study led by the  Environmental Defense Fund.

The study, to which 15 universities and research institutions contributed, attributes the difference to the agency’s failure to account for equipment malfunctions at drilling sites, and processing and pipeline facilities.

According to the study, 13 million metric tons of methane – the main component of natural gas – are leaked from these facilities, amounting to more than 2 percent of total oil and natural gas production. The leaked methane is worth $2 billion. This would be enough to supply 10 million homes with gas each year.

The new estimate undermines the argument that natural gas is helping combat climate change, as methane is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

At the same time, Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook 2018 forecasts an unstoppable global move toward renewables and energy storage, with coal and nuclear power virtually eliminated from the U.S. power mix by 2050. The report predicts this change based on the confluence of falling prices, growing efficiencies in wind and solar technology, and increasing electric vehicle sales.

The number of natural gas plants will increase globally, but the plants will run less because of the expanding penetration of renewables and storage technology. As a result, natural gas usage in the electric sector will remain virtually flat through 2050, Bloomberg predicts. This would be cause for concern, as burning natural gas has not only serious climate change repercussions, but also severe public health impacts.

However, 40 to 50 percent of methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure could be eliminated at no cost, a 2017 report by the International Energy Agency found.

But as EWG recently reported, fracking cannot be done without threatening human health. The health risks include increased risk of cancer, asthma and birth defects near fracking wells, due to the array of toxins fracking emits into the air and water.

The Bloomberg report projects the shift toward renewable energy will continue as solar and storage costs drop by about 70 percent, and wind costs drop by 60 percent. By 2050, wind and solar will comprise half of the global energy mix, and fossil fuel electric generation will fall from 60 percent to under 30 percent, the report said.

And, as EWG reported, both coal and natural gas generation fell last year for the first time ever, as these forms of energy lost ground to cheaper wind and solar technology.

Could reviving Woolly-Mammoth genes fight the effects of global warming?

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Woolly mammoths have been extinct for more than 4,000 years, but with new gene-editing techniques, they could help mitigate the effects of a modern problem: climate change.

Most of the hype so far has focused on bringing these shaggy beasts back to life using their permafrost-preserved DNA. But this time, scientists aren’t aiming for a “Jurassic Park” scenario — they’re not trying to bring back entire mammoths exactly as they were in the last ice age. Rather, they’re hoping to mingle some of the mammoths’ ancient genes with those of today’s Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), to increase the elephants’ tolerance to the cold, said George Church, a Harvard and MIT geneticist who is heading the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team.

“I don’t even think it’s desirable” to bring back the entire mammoth, Church told Live Science Friday (May 11) here at the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala. He thinks a few ancient genes will do more good, by boosting the survival chances of threatened elephants, which could then be reintroduced to northern parts of the globe. Once there, the genetically tweaked elephants would topple trees that keep the area warm in the winter, thereby restoring a more climate-friendly ecosystem. [6 Extinct Animals That Could Be Brought Back to Life].

Restoring the steppe

When mammoths roamed in a northern area known as the “mammoth steppe,” that ecosystem was rich in grasses. But after the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) went extinct and other grazers left the area, grasses gave way to shrubs and a tundra ecosystem, an environment that the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team says is “contributing to human-driven climate change.”

“The elephants that lived in the past — and elephants possibly in the future — knocked down trees and allowed the cold air to hit the ground and keep the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect the sunlight in the summer,” Church said. “Those two [factors] combined could result in a huge cooling of the soil and a rich ecosystem.”

In the absence of large creatures to knock down trees and trample the snow, the opposite happens, Church said, as tall trees and a fluffy blanket of snow keep the permafrost warm in the winter months.

“Fluffy snow is like a down blanket keeping the warm summer soil away from the -40 degree winter winds,” Church said. And trees absorb light and heat in the summer and keep cold winds out in the winter, he added.

With already warmer temperatures, this leads to the melting of permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases like methane, Church said. In fact, 1,400 gigatons of carbon — the amount equivalent to 43 times as much carbon as fossil fuels and industry produced last year, according to the International Energy Agency — is at risk of escaping into the atmosphere if permafrost melts, he added.

The elephants on our planet right now can’t tolerate the cold climate of the steppe. So the idea is to use gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR to insert the ancient robust genes from mammoths into Asian elephant cells and create embryos that may grow up to be elephant-mammoth hybrids that can.

“It could just be 44 genes [that] might be sufficient to make them adapted again to the cold,” Church said. He hopes to insert a few others that could help elephants in other ways as well — such as genes that could allow them to eat certain toxins and thus increase the range of vegetation they can nibble, or genes that decrease their tusk size so they are less likely to be poached.

Because of the ethical concerns of implanting the embryos into elephants, the scientists hope to be able to grow the mammoth-elephant hybrid in the lab. But whether that’s possible is still to be determined, Church said. First, the researchers will try growing mice from mouse embryos in the lab. So far, they have managed to insert some mammoth genes into elephant cells in the lab, such as those for more hair growth or fat production, according to a previous Live Science report.

Of course, many questions remain. For example, how would these genes interact with other genes? Would the embryos survive in the lab environment? How would these massive hybrids fare in today’s ecosystems, and would they alter them? Of course, there are ethical considerations as well: Even if humans can manipulate the ecosystem, should they?

Originally published on Live Science.

Methane, Climate Change, and Our Uncertain Future

https://eos.org/editors-vox/methane-climate-change-and-our-uncertain-future

Methane is generally considered secondary to carbon dioxide in its importance to climate change, but what role might methane play in the future if global temperatures continue to rise?

By 

The greenhouse gas, methane, is produced by both natural processes and human activities. While there has been much attention paid to curbing anthropogenic emissions, a changing climate will likely increase the production of natural methane. In an open access article recently published in Reviews of GeophysicsDean et al. [2018] describe the ways in which biological, geochemical, and physical systems influence methane concentrations and explore how methane levels in natural systems may alter in a warming climate. Here the authors answer some questions about the sources and significance of methane, and indicate some future research directions.

How does methane effect the Earth’s climate?

Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that is much stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2), 34 times stronger if compared over a 100-year period. While concentrations of methane in the atmosphere are about 200 times lower than carbon dioxide, methane was responsible for 60% of the equivalent radiative forcing caused by carbon dioxide since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Methane’s presence in the atmosphere can also affect the abundance of other greenhouse gases, such as ozone (O3), water vapor (H2O), and carbon dioxide.

What are the primary natural and anthropogenic sources of methane?

The main natural sources of methane are wetlands and freshwater systems (rivers and lakes). The main sources of anthropogenic methane are agriculture (such as cattle farming) and waste (such as landfills), and methane derived from the fossil fuel industry. Anthropogenic sources are slightly larger emitters of methane to the atmosphere compared to natural sources.

How have methane levels in the atmosphere changed over time?

Direct records of atmospheric methane concentrations only go back about 800,000 years. During this time methane concentrations have generally varied between 300 and 800 parts per billion. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in about 1750, however, atmospheric methane concentrations shot up to about 1800 parts per billion and are continuing to rise.

Between 2000 and 2007, atmospheric methane concentrations appeared to stabilize, leading to sustained debate regarding the main drivers of atmospheric methane. Crucially, after 2007 atmospheric methane concentrations began to rise again and current measurements suggest that atmospheric methane concentrations will continue to increase.

It remains vital that we are able to identify the cause(s) of this rise in order to address emissions of this critical greenhouse gas. Particularly important is curbing emissions from human activities, namely agriculture and the fossil fuel industries. One key example of this, currently, is the identification and mitigation of leaking natural gas infrastructure.

Which natural systems are most vulnerable to climate change and may significantly influence methane emissions?

The biggest natural emitters of methane are wetlands and lakes, both of which are affected by the impacts of climate change, namely increased temperatures and changing hydrology. The balance between methane production and its oxidation within these environments before it can be released to the atmosphere, both of which are affected by temperature and hydrology, is crucial to understanding the response of these systems to climate change.

While not the largest emitters, permafrost systems (underlain by soils that remain frozen throughout the year due to cold local temperatures) are highly vulnerable to climate change. The proportion of methane emitted from such systems may increase significantly in a warmer future as the previously frozen organic carbon-rich soils are thawed out, making this material available for methane producing microbes.

The methane climate feedback loop. Credit: Dean et al., 2018, Figure 7

 

What are some of the unresolved questions in this field where additional research, data or modeling is needed?

In the short-term, a key issue that needs resolving is the mismatch between global methane budgets from top-down (derived from atmospheric measurements) and bottom-up (derived from measurements of methane emissions at the land surface from different methane producing environments) approaches. This requires collecting more data at high resolution in time and space, and the use of isotopes to bridge top-down and bottom-up observations to identify methane sources across these measurement scales.

In the longer-term, a crucial question that remains is whether methane oxidation in natural environments can match potentially increased methane production in response to predicted climate change. Answering this question requires observations and modeling at a wide range of scales from the microbial- to the global-scale. This should also involve bringing together researchers across these disciplines, particularly linking geophysicists and geochemists with microbiologists.

—Joshua Dean, Department of Earth Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands; email: j.f.dean@vu.nl

Here’s what vanishing sea ice in the Arctic means for you

Sea ice floating north of Greenland.
 Photo by Robbie Russell / NASA

As the world’s temperatures go up, the Arctic keeps losing its ice. This winter, the area covered by sea ice was the second smallest on record — after last year. And many experts believe that this summer, the Arctic ice cap will shrink to record lows. Why should I care, you ask?

“The Arctic is a natural freezer,” says Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, in an email to The Verge. “Just like you’d be concerned if all of the ice in your freezer melted, so should you be concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice.”

The changes that are happening in the Arctic don’t just affect the Arctic. Our planet is an interconnected system, and the vanishing ice is already having ripple effects down south. Among them: faster global warming, rising sea levels, and possibly more extreme natural disasters. (Plus, the polar bears will suffer.) Scientists are still trying to figure many things out, but pretty much everyone agrees that a melting Arctic isn’t a good thing.

“This whole climate change is a big can of worms,” says Ignatius Rigor, coordinator of the International Arctic Buoy Program at the University of Washington. “It’s pretty scary because we’re starting to realize more and more how big of an impact we’re having on the planet.”

So here are some ways that the vanishing Arctic ice is affecting the rest of the world — you included.

THE ALBEDO EFFECT

The albedo effect is just a fancy expression for a very simple concept: white surfaces like ice and snow reflect about 80 percent of the Sun’s energy back into space. That allows us to keep cool. But if those white spots disappear, the darker ocean and land will absorb 90 percent of that heat, accelerating global warming. “If you have a black car, it gets hotter in the summer than if you have a white car,” says Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge.

The albedo effect due to vanishing sea ice is already responsible for about 25 percent of global warming, according to Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s School of Environment and Biological Sciences. So we’re all getting hotter because sea ice is shrinking, and the Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world. That, in and of itself, can lead to even more problems.

SEA LEVEL RISE

Sea ice floats, so when it melts, it does not raise sea levels. But warmer temperatures in the Arctic are causing another type of ice to disappear as well: land-based ice in Greenland. If that ice melts, it causes sea levels to go up. Scientists estimate that if the entire Greenland ice sheet — which is roughly three times the size of Texas — melted, sea levels would soar 20 feet.

The seas are already rising, and so far, Greenland has contributed to only 4 to 5 percent of that rise, says Francis. But melt rates are accelerating, and that poses a serious threat to anyone living on the coast. In the US, that’s about 40 percent of the population. Residents in Florida, New Jersey, and Maryland are already experiencing more flooding. And the situation isn’t going to get better.

“Certain cities will have to be abandoned,” Wadhams says. Rigor agrees: “Our coastal towns aren’t really built for this.”

In Alaska, there’s also another problem tied to vanishing sea ice. The ice protects coastal towns from big waves, Rigor says. Just this winter, as ice in the Bering Sea shrunk to record levelshuge waves pummeled the town of Diomede, engulfing homes. Erosion is also forcing the 400-plus residents of Newtok, Alaska, to relocate.

MORE EXTREME WEATHER

There’s another way that a warming Arctic might hit close to home: many scientists believe that it might affect extreme weather events in North America and Europe. Earlier this year, for instance, research showed that when the Arctic is unusually warm, extreme winter weather is two to four times more likely in the eastern US.

That may be happening because a warming Arctic disrupts the jet stream, “a river of fast-moving wind high over our heads” that “basically controls and creates all the weather that we experience,” Francis says. The difference in temperature between the Arctic and the mid latitudes, where we live and it’s warmer, is one of the driving forces of the jet stream. But as the vanishing ice is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world, that temperature difference is diminishing. And that’s weakening the winds in the jet stream, Francis says. A weaker jet stream also has more waves, and that means more extreme weather that lingers for longer.

Francis says we’ve already seen this jet stream disruption in action this winter, as the eastern US experienced record-breaking freezing temperaturesa “bomb cyclone,” and three nor’easters in just 11 days. But others say there’s still “a lot of debate in the scientific community” on whether or not a warming Arctic is to blame, according to Julienne Stroeve, professor of polar observation and modelling at University College London.

More research is looking into this. And it’s not just about the US or Europe. A study in 2017 showed that there’s a link between shrinking Arctic ice and a build-up of smog in China.

THAWING PERMAFROST

Rising temperatures in the Arctic are also causing frozen ground, called permafrost, to thaw in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. That’s concerning because permafrost traps huge amounts of carbon — at least as much carbon as it’s in the atmosphere right now, Francis says. If the permafrost warms up, it can start releasing this carbon in the form of two powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide, making global warming worse.

One study published in Nature Geoscience in 2012 estimated that thawed permafrost could contribute up to 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius) of warming by 2300. That may not seem like much, but most scientists believe that we need to keep warming well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) if we want to stave off the worst effects of climate change. And the greenhouse gas leak from the permafrost is independent from all the carbon dioxide we keep pumping into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel. Those CO2 concentrations aren’t going down.

Wadhams says that offshore permafrost also poses a danger: the frozen, underwater sediments in the Arctic are rich in methane, and if those layers start melting, we could see “a very sudden, big burst of warming that would be disastrous,” he says. But Francis says that offshore permafrost is much less of a concern right now since the ocean waters deep down are still very cold. “We got other things that are much bigger to worry about right now,” she says.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Since the 1980s, the area covered by Arctic sea ice in the summer has shrunk by about 40 percent, according to NASAThe ice is also becoming thinner. It’s really hard to predict when we could see ice-free summers in the Arctic, but it could be as soon as in 20 to 40 years, Francis says. (In the winter, the North Pole has six months of darkness, so it’s likely that the ice will stay during that time of the year for a long time.) It all depends on how warm our planet gets — and to limit that, we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere.

The likely solution, according to Wadhams, is the development of “carbon capture” technology that can remove CO2 from the air. Some projects are doing this already, but they’re not large scale enough to really make a difference. But if we devote enough research dollars to the problem, Wadhams is confident that we will find a solution. Francis agrees: once emitted, CO2 stays in the air for 100 to 200 years, so “all of the emissions that have occurred are going to affect us for a long time, unless we can figure out a way to remove them from the atmosphere.”

Wadhams adds: “In the end, that’s the only thing that will save us from global warming.”

What genuine, for real, no-bullshit ambition on climate change would look like

New scenarios show how to hit the most stringent targets, with no loopholes.

A new dawn of ambition, or something.
 Shutterstock

What would it take to really tackle climate change? No delays, no gimmicks, no loopholes, no shirking of responsibility — the real thing. What would it look like?

To answer that question, it helps to understand the upper threshold of climate ambition. The target agreed upon by the world’s nations in Paris in 2015 is global warming of “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, with good-faith efforts to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

Countries are not moving anywhere near fast enough to hit those targets, so we are currently on track for somewhere around 3 degrees. It is generally agreed that hitting 2 degrees would quite ambitious, while hitting 1.5 would be nothing short of miraculous.

While there is nothing like a real-world plan in place for hitting those targets yet, climate modelers have come up with many scenarios for how we might do so. However, as I wrote recently, most of those scenarios rely heavily on “negative emissions” — ways of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If negative emissions technologies can be scaled up later in the century, the reasoning goes, it gives us room to emit more earlier in the century.

And that’s what most current 2- or 1.5-degree scenarios show: Global carbon emissions rise in the short term, then plunge rapidly to become net negative around 2060, with gigatons of carbon subsequently captured and buried over the remainder of the century. The oil giant Shell released a scenario along those lines a few weeks ago.

shell emissions
Shell’s use of negative emissions, compared to other scenarios.
 Glen Peters

The primary instrument of negative emissions is expected to be BECCS: bioenergy (burning plants to generate electricity) with carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is that plants absorb carbon as they grow; when we burn them, we can capture and bury that carbon. The result is electricity generated as carbon is removed from the cycle — net-negative carbon electricity.

Most current scenarios bank on a lot of BECCS later in the century to make up for the carbon sins of the near past and near future.

beccs
BECCS.
 Sanchez 2015

One small complication in all this: There is currently no commercial BECCS industry. Neither the BE nor the CCS part has been demonstrated at any serious scale, much less at the scale necessary. (The land area needed to grow all that biomass for BECCS in these models is estimated to be around one to three times the size of India.)

Maybe we could pull off a massive BECCS industry quickly. But banking on negative emissions later in the century is, at the very least, an enormous, fateful gamble. It bets the lives and welfare of millions of future people on an industry that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t yet exist.

Plenty of people reasonably conclude that’s a bad idea, but alternatives have been difficult to come by. There hasn’t been much scenario-building around truly ambitious goals: to zero out carbon as fast as possible, to hold temperature rise as close to 1.5 degrees as possible, and, most significantly, to do so while minimizing the need for negative emissions. That is the upper end of what’s possible.

Three recent publications help fill that gap:

  • Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050,” by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), is a plan that targets a 66 percent chance of staying below 2 degrees, primarily through renewable energy.
  • The analysts at Ecofys recently released a scenario for zeroing out global emissions by 2050, thus limiting temperature to 1.5 degrees and eliminating (most of) the need for negative emissions.
  • A group of scholars led by Detlef van Vuuren of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency published a paper in Nature Climate Change investigating how to hit the 1.5 degree target while minimizing the need for negative emissions.
nature climate change
This graph will be very meaningful once you read the paper.
 Nature Climate Change

Here’s how this post is going to go: First, we’ll have a quick look at why targeting 1.5 degrees is so urgent; second, we’ll look at a few things these scenarios have in common, the baseline for serious ambition; third, we’ll look more closely at the third paper, as it offers someinteresting alternatives (like, oh, mass vegetarianism) to typical carbon thinking; and finally, I’ll conclude.

Why targeting 1.5 degrees is urgent

Americans can’t make much sense out of Celsius temperatures, and half a degree of temperature doesn’t sound like much regardless. But the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming is a very big deal. (The IPCC is coming out with a science reviewon this in October.)

Another recent paper in Nature Climate Change makes the point vividly: Bumping ambition up from 2 to 1.5 degrees would prevent 150 million premature deaths through 2100, 90 million through reduced exposure to particulates, 60 million due to reduced ozone.

“More than a million premature deaths would be prevented in many metropolitan areas in Asia and Africa,” the researchers write, “and [more than] 200,000 in individual urban areas on every inhabited continent except Australia.”

That’s not nothing! And of course, the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees could mean the difference between life and death for low-lying islands.

Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands, for now.
 Shutterstock

There’s no time to waste. In fact, there may be, uh, negative time. Limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is possible, even in theory, only if the “carbon budget” for that target is at the high end of current estimates.

Again: 1.5 is only possible if we get started, with boosters on, immediately, and we get lucky. Time is not running out — it’s out.

What’s required to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees

The three scenarios I mentioned are different in a number of ways. The first two project through 2050, but the Nature Climate Change paper goes out to 2100. They target different things and use different tools. But they share a few big action items — features that any ambitious climate plan will inevitably involve.

1) Radically increase energy efficiency.

Just how much energy will be needed through 2050? That depends on population and economic growth, obviously, but it also depends on the energy intensity of the world’s economies — how much primary energy they require to produce a unit of GDP.

Increasing energy efficiency (which, all else being equal, reduces emissions) is in a race with population and economic growth (which, all else being equal, increases them). To radically decarbonize with minimal negative emissions, efficiency will need to outrun growth. (Notably, Shell’s scenario shows much higher global energy demand in coming decades; growth outruns efficiency.)

IRENA’s scenario reduces global energy-related emissions 90 percent by 2050. Of that 90 percent, 40 comes from energy efficiency.

IRENA scenarioIRENA

To do this, IRENA says, the energy intensity of the global economy must fall two-thirds by 2050. Improvements in energy intensity will have to accelerate from an average of 1.8 percent a year from 2010 to 2015 to an average of 2.8 percent a year through 2050.

In the Ecofys scenario, energy efficiency is so amped up that total global energy demand is lower in 2050 than today, despite a much larger population and a global economy three times larger than today’s.

The Nature Climate Change paper summarizes the necessary approach to efficiency this way: “Rapid application of the best available technologies for energy and material efficiency in all relevant sectors in all regions.”

“All relevant sectors in all regions” means electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry, all bumped up to the most efficient available materials and technologies, everywhere in the world, starting immediately. Cool, cool, cool.

2) Radically increase renewable energy.

All the scenarios envision renewables (primarily wind and solar) rapidly coming to dominate electricity. In the IRENA scenario, renewables grow sixfold faster than they are currently, supplying 85 percent of global electricity by 2050.

Ecofys has them supplying 100 percent of global electricity — with that sector completely decarbonized — by 2040, even as global demand for electricity triples.

ecofys scenarioEcofys

The Nature Climate Change paper notes that the vision of rapid renewables dominance all these scenarios have in common involves “optimistic assumptions on the integration of variable renewables and on costs of transmission, distribution and storage,” which, yeah.

3) Electrify everything!

Notably, all three scenarios heavily involve electrification of sectors and applications that currently run on fossil fuels. In the IRENA case, electricity rises from 21 percent of total global energy consumption today to 40 percent by 2050.

In the Ecofys scenario, it rises to a whopping 70 percent. In the Nature Climate Changestudy, it rises to 46 percent (compared to 31 percent in the reference case).

I have made the case for electrification before, and it’s not complicated. We know how to radically increase the supply of zero-carbon electricity; increasing the supply of zero-carbon liquid fuels is much more difficult. So it makes sense to move as much energy use as possible over to electricity, particularly vehicles, home heating and cooling, and lower-temperature industrial applications.

The Ecofys scenario makes it particularly clear: If renewable energy and energy efficiency are to be your primary decarbonization tools (more on that in a second), full decarbonization requires going all out on electrification.

IRENA
The rising yellow wedge at the bottom left — that’s electricity.
 IRENA

4) And still maybe do a little negative emissions.

Even though the intentions, of the Ecofys and Nature researchers particularly, was to minimize the need for negative emissions, neither was able to completely eliminate it.

“Regardless of the rapid decarbonisation” in the scenario, Ecofys researchers write, “the 1.5°C carbon budget is most likely still exceeded.” The only way to hold at 1.5 is to mop up that excess carbon with negative emissions. Ecofys thinks CCS applications will mostly be confined to industry and the rest can be taken care of by “afforestation, reforestation, and soil carbon sequestration,” i.e., non-CCS methods of negative emissions. And, it notes, this remaining excess carbon “is significantly less than most other low carbon scenarios.”

In the Nature Climate Change study, the need for BECCS can be completely eliminated only if every single one of the other strategies is maximized (see the next section).

Here’s what those researchers conclude about negative emissions:

[W]hile this study shows that alternative options can greatly reduce the volume of CDR [carbon dioxide removal] to achieve the 1.5°C goal, nearly all scenarios still rely on BECCS and/or reforestation (even the hypothetical combination of all alternative options still captured 400 GtCO2 by reforestation). Therefore, investment in the development of CDR options remains an important strategy if the international community intends to implement the Paris target.

They advise policymakers (wisely, it seems to me) to pursue negative emissions strategies but to think of alternative scenarios as insurance against the possibility that those strategies run up against unanticipated social or economic barriers.

the kemper ccs project
The Kemper Project, meant to capture carbon from coal emissions, died a painful death
(Wikipedia)

Decarbonization beyond renewable electricity and efficiency

The IRENA and Ecofys scenarios, like most rapid decarbonization scenarios, rely overwhelmingly on renewable energy and energy efficiency. But as environmentalist Paul Hawken reminds us with his Drawdown Project, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in most climate policy. (For instance, we’re going to talk about fake meat here in a minute.)

Like most climate-economic modelers, the Nature Climate Change researchers use integrated assessment models (IAMs) to generate their scenarios. They tested their decarbonization strategies against the second of five shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs), which are the modeling community’s set of different visions for the future — different mixes of population, economic growth, oil prices, technology development, etc. SSP2 contains roughly median predictions. (If you’re curious about SSPs, here’s an explainer.)

But they also challenge some of the limitations in how IAMs have typically been used:

As IAMs select technologies on the basis of relative costs, they normally concentrate on reduction measures for which reasonable estimates of future performance and costs can be made. This implies that some possible response strategies receive less attention, as their future performance is more speculative or their introduction would be based on drivers other than cost, such as lifestyle change or more rapid electrification.

The Nature Climate Change paper attempts to model some of these more ambitious, uncertain, or non-cost-driven strategies, assembling a whole suite of decarbonization scenarios in different combinations.

Several of them are familiar: There’s a “uniform carbon tax in all regions and sectors,” along with maximized energy efficiency and renewable energy. But others are more novel in these modeling contexts.

Agricultural intensification: “High agricultural yields and application of intensified animal husbandry globally.”

Low non-CO2: “Implementation of the best available technologies for reducing non-CO2 emissions and full adoption of cultured meat in 2050.” (Non-CO2 greenhouse gasesinclude methane, nitrous oxide, black carbon, fluorocarbons, aerosols, and tropospheric ozone. Cattle are a big source of methane, thus the cultured meat.)

Lifestyle change: “Consumers change their habits towards a lifestyle that leads to lower GHG emissions. This includes a less meat-intensive diet (conforming to health recommendations), less CO2-intensive transport modes (following the current modal split in Japan), less intensive use of heating and cooling (change of 1°C in heating and cooling reference levels) and a reduction in the use of several domestic appliances.” Though they don’t call it out specifically, this would very much involve less flying, one of the most carbon-intensive habits of the affluent.

Low population: “Scenario based on SSP1, projecting low population growth.” Population growth can be curbed most effectively through access to family planning and education of girls (which, notably, have many other benefits as well).

Educating girls.
Good climate policy.
 (Drawdown)

You can decide for yourself how likely you find any of these changes. The researchers say they are modeling “ambitious, but not unrealistic implementation.”

Reducing non-CO2 GHGs and widespread lifestyle changes have the most short-term impact on emissions. However, “by 2100,” they write, “the strongest reductions are found in the renewable electrification and low population scenarios.” This echoes what the Drawdown Project found, which is that educating girls and making family planning widely available (thus reducing population growth) is the most potent long-term climate policy.

Deep thoughts

Needless to say, accomplishing any one of these goals — a global carbon tax, maximized efficiency, an explosion of renewable energy, a wholesale revolution in agriculture, rapid reduction of non-CO2 GHGs, a rapid shift in global lifestyle choices, and successful measures to curb population growth — would be an enormous achievement.

To completely avoid BECCS while still hitting the 1.5 degree target, we would have to accomplish all of them.

That is highly unlikely. Still, the important point of the Nature Climate Change research remains: “alternative pathways exist allowing for more moderate use and postponement of BECCS.” Given the substantial and uncharted difficulties facing BECCS, policymakers owe those alternative pathways a look.

Obviously these strategies face all kinds of social and economic barriers. (I’m trying to envision what it would take to rapidly shift Americans from beef to cultured meat … trying and failing.) But they also come with co-benefits. Reducing fossil fuels reduces local air pollution and its health impacts. Energy efficiency reduces energy bills. Eating less meat and driving less are healthy.

Overall, a radical energy transition would mean a net boost in global GDP (relative to the reference case) in every year through 2050.

IRENAIRENA

An energy transition would also create millions of net jobs. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Engineering any of these shifts, the Nature Climate Change researchers write with some understatement, “requires not only insights from IAMs, but also in-depth knowledge of social transitions.” They suggest (and I heartily endorse) that subsequent research focus on social and political barriers and strategies.

In the end, perhaps the most important conclusion in the Nature Climate Change paper is the simplest and the one that we already knew: “a rapid transformation in energy consumption and land use is needed in all scenarios.”

At this point, whether it’s possible to hit various targets is almost beside the point. All the science and modeling are saying the same thing, which is that humanity faces serious danger and needs to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible.

The chances of us getting our collective shit together and accomplishing what these scenarios describe are … slim. There are so many vested interests and so much public aversion to rapid change, so many governments to be coordinated, so many economic and technology trends that must fall just the right way. It’s daunting.

Conversely, the chances of us overdoing it — trying too hard, spending too much money, reducing emissions too much or too fast — are effectively nil.

So the only rule of climate policy that really matters is: go as hard and fast as possible, forever and ever, amen.

Cow farts may be contributing more to global warming than we realized

VIEW SLIDESHOW

When you hear the words ‘cow farts,’ you probably giggle a little. But bovine flatulence and belches are pumping methane into the atmosphere, and contributing even more greenhouse gas emissions than scientists previously thought. According to new NASA-funded research, estimates of livestockemissions could have been off by around 10 percent.

Cow, cows, bovine, livestock, animal, animals, methane, methane emissions, global methane emissions, emissions, greenhouse gas, greenhouse gases, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, global warming

When we think of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, carbon dioxide is typically the first one that comes to mind. But methane – even though it can break down quicker – is around 85 times more powerful in trapping heat. And guess who’s pouring methane into the air? Cows. Three scientists, from the United States Department of AgricultureJoint Global Change Research Institute, and the United States Department of Energy, reevaluated data employed to calculate 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions factors. They created revised emissions factors and discovered livestock methane emissions were 11 percent higher in 2011 than other estimates arrived at using the 2006 guidelines.

Related: How oregano could save the world by reducing bovine belching

The journal Carbon Balance and Management published the research the end of September. Lead author Julie Wolf said in a statement, “In many regions of the world, livestock numbers are changing, and breeding has resulted in larger animals with higher intakes of food. This, along with changes in livestock management, can lead to higher methane emissions.”

Cow, cows, bovine, livestock, animal, animals, methane, methane emissions, global methane emissions, emissions, greenhouse gas, greenhouse gases, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, global warming

The way we deal with cow poop also influences how many emissions enter the air. Using manure as fertilizer on fields yields less methane than storing the poop in pits. Changes like that one have caused global methane emissions to increase by almost 37 percent. Between 2003 and 2011, livestock yielded around one fifth of methane emissions – but they were also responsible for between half and three quarters of the methane emissions increase researchers noted during that time period.

Even if you’re not a farmer, and can’t control farming practices, Popular Science said it wouldn’t hurt to eat less red meat.

Via Forbes and Popular Science

Images via Ryan Song on Unsplash and Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

When nature harms itself: Five scary climate feedback loops

http://www.dw.com/en/when-nature-harms-itself-five-scary-climate-feedback-loops/a-43649814

The thing about climate change is, the worse it gets – the worse it gets. Feedback loops accelerate the warming process. Now, scientists looking at lakes have found yet another alarming vicious circle to add to the list.

    
Bildergalerie Waldbrand Kalifornien (Getty Images/J. Sullivan)

Lakes make a tiny fraction of the world’s water, but they’re home to lots of plants and animals. They’re often situated in the midst of still more biodiversity, in the form of forest. At least, they used to be.

Lately, forests have been vanishing, while aquatic plants continue to thrive. Due to this change, the lakes of the northern hemisphere could almost double their methane emissions over the next 50 years, new research has shown. Why? Climate change.

This increase of emissions will further contribute to global warming, in what scientists call a positive climate feedback loop.

And it’s just the latest addition to a growing list of ways we’re altering natural processes with spiraling impacts on the climate and carbon cycle. Here are some of the most alarming:

BdW Global Ideas Bild der Woche KW 45/2015 Antarktis Pinguin (Reuters/P. Askin)The ‘ice-albedo’ feedback loop acclerates polar ice melt

More and more methane 

Freshwater bodies are responsible for more than 15 percent of the Earth’s natural emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Up to 77 percent of a lake’s methane emissions come from the decomposition of aquatic plants. Microbes break down organic matter and generate methane that bubbles up to the surface.

Warming temperatures encourage the growth of aquatic plants, meaning there is more of this carbon-rich matter to break down, releasing still more climate-harmful methane into the atmosphere.

Researchers also found that debris from surrounding trees impedes methane production within the lake. But with fewer trees surrounding lakes that safety catch is also off.

Canada's Boreal Shield, Ontario (Andrew Tanentzap)Plants decomposing in lakes release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times for powerful than CO2

A melting sun shield

The dazzling white of polar ice isn’t just eye-catching, it also helps keep the planet cool, reflecting the sun’s rays back to space.

As ice melts that reflective coating is lost, exposing darker bodies of water and land, which absorb more of the sun’s heat, leading to greater warming and, in turn, to more ice melting… and so on.

This scary process is known as ice-albedo feedback.

Infografik Melting of Arctic sea ice feedback loop ENG

Defrosting the permafrost

Permafrost is ground that has remained frozen for more than two consecutive years. It covers about 20 percent of the surface of the Earth — mostly in Canada, Russia and Alaska — and stores huge amounts of carbon, some of it for thousands or even millions of years.

Watch video04:13

Effects of Global Warming in Norway

As the planet warms up, permafrost is thawing. The IPCC estimates that permafrost in southern Alaska has become 4 millimeters thinner each year since 1992.

This thawing can put buildings and other infrastructure at risk, as a number of cities are built on permafrost. But it entails another and very worrying risk. Microbes in the newly defrosted soil become active, transforming once-frozen carbon into carbon dioxide and methane.

Scientists are very concerned about the impact of these greenhouse gases on the climate, but the true scale of the problem is still unknown.

Ring of fire

Forest fires have had devastating consequences in countries like Indonesia, California or Spain over the last few years. Alongside other human activity — like unsustainable land use — warmer temperatures and drier land due to climate change increase the risk and scale of forest fires.

Various studies found that large forest fires in the western United States have become five times more frequent since the 1970s and 80s, scorching over six times as much land, and lasting almost five times as long.

Burning all that wood and other organic matter, forest fires release massive amounts of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, helping push the global temperature and further dying out the land…

Watch video12:06

Palm Oil plantations threaten the rainforest

Cascading forest loss

Trees, of course, need water to survive. But they don’t just consume this precious resource, they also help regulate it in the atmosphere. In the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, researchers are warning that a dangerous vicious circle might be taking place.

Rising temperatures close to the equator mean less rainfall, and even drought, which increases the risk of forest dieback. As drought takes its toll, there are fewer trees to absorb water and release it back, which in turns makes conditions still drier.

This “cascading dieback” is also worrying because forests are famously important carbon sinks, and forest loss a significant source of CO2 emissions.

Bonus track: Look down, soils matter

Soils hold 70 percent of the planet’s land-based carbon — four times as much as all the world’s biomass and three times the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbon could remain locked into the soil for millennia if we just left it alone. But unsustainable agriculture means it often escapes as carbon dioxide.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, a startling 50 to 70 percent of carbon once stored in soil has already been released into the atmosphere.

Loss of peatlands — which store huge amount of carbon — has a particularly terrifying impact, currently contributing 5 percent of global CO2 emissions and fueling forest fires.

While not a feedback loop, the example of CO2 from soils is a stark reminder of the delicate balance of our planetary system and the profound damage we do by upsetting it.

DW RECOMMENDS

WWW LINKS

AUDIOS AND VIDEOS ON THE TOPIC

RELATED CONTENT

Schmelzendes Eis in der Arktik

Arctic warmer than much of Europe is a worrying sign of climate change27.02.2018

As frigid air sweeps across Europe, the Arctic itself is seeing an unprecedented warm spell. What’s going on and does it relate to global warming?

Portugal Waldbrände

How climate change is increasing forest fires around the world 19.06.2017

Have wildfires increased globally over recent years? And if so, is global warming to blame? Research has illuminated this, along with what wildfires do to us and our environment, and which areas are most vulnerable.

Flash-Galerie 5 Jahre Hurrikan Katrina

The world at 3 degrees: What it means for five cities 15.11.2017

From rising sea levels to megastorms and drought, how five cities around the world will face their own struggles to adapt to a warming planet.

Why natural gas makes global warming worse

Methane that leaks from natural gas processing plants, like the one above, and elsewhere on its way to end users makes global warming worse.

Methane that leaks from natural gas processing plants, like the one above, and elsewhere on its way to end users makes global warming worse.

In early March, the New Orleans City Council — all Democrats — voted 6-1 to approve a big new gas-fired power plant. Sometime in the coming weeks, in Orange County in upstate New York, another vast new gas power plant is expected to go on line — as soon as it’s hooked up to a new pipeline, one of literally dozens planned across the country. Local opponents — environmentalists, community activists — are fighting hard, but somewhere, almost every day, a new piece of natural gas infrastructure goes up.

When I think about my greatest failing as a communicator — and one of the greatest failings of the climate movement — it’s not that global warming still continues. Stopping it cold was always too high an order: The fossil fuel industry is so rich and powerful, and hydrocarbons so central to our economy, that this battle was always going to be uphill. At best we can limit the damage, and in that we’ve made at least some progress.

It’s not even that Donald Trump managed to win the presidency as a climate denier — in fact,  most people regard that stand as stupid, and it’s not why he took the White House. We’ve more or less managed to persuade Americans that global warming is a real danger. The oil industry’s propaganda effort may have delayed that realization by a generation, but eventually the siege of studies — and of fires, floods, and windstorms — took their inevitable toll.

No, the single most annoying failing is a more technical one, but with huge consequence: Public opinion — and especially elite opinion — still accepts natural gas as a cleaner replacement for other fossil fuels. And this acceptance — nearly as strong among Democrats as Republicans — has meant that we’ve seen huge increases in the use of natural gas. In fact, our essential global warming strategy in America has been to replace coal-fired power plants with ones that run on fracked gas.

The idea that natural gas combats climate change is a sleight of hand. But explaining why appears to be just slightly too technical for it ever to get across, in the media or on Capitol Hill, in statehouses or city halls. Still, I’ll try one more time.

It’s true that when you burn natural gas in a power plant, you emit less carbon dioxide than when you burn coal — for simplicity’s sake, let’s say half as much. That sounds good, since carbon is the main contributor to climate change. It’s what allowed President Obama to boast in his 2014 State of the Union address that “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.” He added, “One of the reasons why is natural gas — if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” In fact, his administration was so fond of fracking that the State Department set up an entire agency whose only task was to spread the technology to other countries.Here’s the trouble: carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, but it’s not the only one. Another one — present in smaller amounts, but far more potent — is CH4, otherwise known as methane, the primary component of natural gas. If you burn natural gas, you get less carbon dioxide than with coal. But any methane that escapes unburned into the atmosphere on the way to the power plant warms the planet very effectively — so effectively that if you leak more than 2 or 3 percent it’s worse for climate change than coal.

It turns out that there are lots of places for leaks to happen — when you frack a field, when you connect a pipe, when you send gas thousands of miles through pumping stations — and so most studies show that the leakage rate is at least 3 percent and probably higher. What that means is: America has cut its carbon emissions, but only at the cost of dramatically increasing its methane emissions. It means that what we’ve done is run in place.

Put another way, it’s as if we proudly announced that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.

No one wants to hear this.

Democrats don’’ want to hear this — natural gas was their get-out-of-jail-free card. They could get credit for going after climate change without really requiring systemic change — in some cases, you could simply convert the existing coal-fired power plant to run on gas. Electricity prices didn’t go up; in fact, fracked gas was cheap enough that it produced much of the early economic boom that powered the Obama recovery.  Now lots of high-level Obama alumni make lots of money working in the natural gas industry.

The oil industry doesn’t want to hear it. Company after company responds to the climate threat by offering to produce more natural gas to replace coal. As Exxon puts it on its website, “the abundant supplies of natural gas unearthed by the shale revolution in the United States have contributed to a reduction in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions to levels not seen since the 1990s as electric utilities have switched from coal to natural gas for power generation. … The abundant supplies of natural gas coming from America’s shale fields are positioning the U.S. to be a net exporter of natural gas, which can mean lower emissions worldwide.” We’re not the problem, we’re the solution.

Republicans don’t want to hear it. The Trump Environmental Protection Agency has scrapped even Obama’s modest efforts to plug methane leaks, and as Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the EPA, told reporters in October, “We are leading the nation — excuse me — the world, with respect to our CO2 footprint in reductions.” It’s why the Trump team thinks they can get away with scorning the Paris Agreement: “we’re producing less carbon” takes the pressure off. It certainly works better than telling reporters that climate change isn’t real.

In any event, journalists don’t much want to hear about methane, because it muddies up the simple storyline. When the Washington Post fact-checked Pruitt’s statement, for instance, it didn’t even mention the fact that our methane emissions had spiked even as CO2 fell. Instead, it gave him “three Pinocchios,” on the grounds that “Pruitt uses the average per capita decrease instead of the overall decrease, without actually making clear he’s talking about per capita numbers.” As if that was the problem.

Even some environmentalists don’t want to hear it. At first many of them actively promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel. Some would say, “Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon,” which is true. But sadly, while it’s around, it traps heat far more efficiently, molecule for molecule — and right now happens to be the short window where we’re breaking the climate.

Though most of the big green groups eventually came around to understanding the facts about methane, politicians who paint themselves as environmental champions have never shifted their positions. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York, but only because of its effects on local communities where the drilling took place; he’s been happy to approve new power plants that run on gas from elsewhere. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, at last year’s Bonn climate talks, said, “You’re reducing carbon emissions by using natural gas. That’s the answer, plain and simple. We are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with natural gas. That’s a move in the right direction.”

But it’s not. It’s not a move in any direction at all. It’s standing still. We’re still pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at pretty much the same rate as before.

In fact, the conversion to natural gas is making things markedly worse because the money that gets spent on this useless transition locks us into burning fossil fuel when, with each passing month, the actual alternatives of sun and wind get cheaper and more available. If we hadn’t discovered fracked natural gas, the effort to deal with climate change would have moved us far more quickly into renewables; instead, we’ve wasted a decade and likely far more, since all those new pipelines and power plants are designed (and financed) to last for 40 or 50 years.