Today, we have the ability to cut the rate of global warming in half–and not just by curbing fossil fuel consumption.
It doesn’t require the invention of new technology. We already have some of the technology we need in place. No one has gone bankrupt putting it into practice. In fact, many of these measures are revenue generators. Some are even life savers.
So, what are we waiting for? The Super Pollutants Act of 2019 would reduce three of the most potent types of short-lived climate pollutants in the U.S. and abroad–methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs–by supporting proven technology, mitigation activities, and emission reduction strategies.
Methane, which accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, is often released into the atmosphere as waste in gas production or distribution. Fluorocarbons are most commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners, and fine particles like black carbon soot are a product of smokestacks and chimneys.
The reason these chemicals are called “super pollutants” is that one molecule of these substances can add several thousand times more heat to the atmosphere than a molecule of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas being added by human activity. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that they are short-lived and only remain in the atmosphere for periods of days to years as opposed to carbon dioxide, which can linger in the air for more than a century after it first comes out of a tailpipe, smokestack or chimney. That means that reducing super pollutants is the fastest single way to slow the rate of climate change.
The Super Pollutants Act would require federal agencies to present plans to switch to cleaner refrigerants, combat methane leakage during oil extraction, and export technology that has successfully curbed black carbon emissions from ships, commercial vehicles, generators, and other equipment with diesel-burning engines in the United States.
Research has shown these measures not only slow warming, but improve public health by removing harmful particulate pollution from the air. There is also evidence that agricultural yields will improve once we eliminate these harmful agents. These approaches are based on research led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego on short-lived climate pollutants.
In 2016, the Obama administration issued an historic rule that would, for the first time, regulate methane emissions from new oil and gas facilities. The EPA estimated that the rule would prevent the release of 170,000 to 180,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, evidence suggests it’s not being enforced. In 2018, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) documented that methane emissions increased slightly.
Just this month, the EPA under the Trump administration proposed a new rule that would roll back all federal regulations on methane. If the EPA’s new rule goes into effect, methane emissions could rise significantly due to increased levels of natural gas escaping from sedimentary rock.
That doesn’t have to be the case. If enacted, the Super Pollutants Act would immediately regulate new sources of methane emissions and trigger new regulations on existing sources if sector-wide emissions do not decline by at least 40 percent below 2012 levels by the end of 2025.
The goal is to accelerate widespread adoption of these changes to protect our environment and public health. We must be ambitious, which means setting achievable goals to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Part of the strategy is to encourage other countries to adopt the best practices and newest technologies to reach the goal as a condition of U.S. support. These emissions reductions would have an immediate benefit in keeping the world safe from the worst effects of a changing climate.
Already, the United States can expect to experience some of the worst consequences of global warming, whether they be more powerful hurricanes, catastrophic wildfires, or spread of vector-borne diseases. That’s why the Super Pollutants Act focuses on combatting some of the most dangerous greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere.
To be clear, curbing super pollutants does not eliminate our need to transition away from fossil fuel use.
As one Scripps scientist puts it, reducing fossil fuel consumption is one lever we can pull to avoid a climate crisis. Reducing short-lived pollutant emissions is a second. There is no question we need both.
Scott Peters represents California’s 52nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, Margaret Leinen is director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.