Is natural gas really the lesser of two evils?
FRISCO — As frackers desperately try to pump every last bit of gas from the ground before the global warming clock runs out, scientists warn that methane emissions could push Earth over a climate tipping point in just a few years.
“We have to control methane immediately, and natural gas is the largest methane pollution source in the United States,” said Robert Howarth, greenhouse gas expert and ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University. “If we hit a climate-system tipping point because of methane, our carbon dioxide problem is immaterial. We have to get a handle on methane, or increasingly risk global catastrophe.”
In a soon-to-be-published article Howarth argues that unchecked methane emissions could quickly boost temps by 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius within a few decades, a dangerous threshold that would lead to massive global consequences.
Howarth’s study, “A Bridge to Nowhere: Methane Emissions and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas,” will be published May 20 in the journal Energy Science and Engineering. In the article, Howarth explains that natural gas extraction and production has become a huge methane source from leads and intentional venting of gas.
According to the IPCC, methane contributes more than 40 percent of current radiative forcing from all greenhouse gases, making it a critical climate change driver,The role of methane as a driver of global warming is even more critical than this 40 percent value might indicate, Howarth explained.
The climate system responds much more quickly to reducing methane than to carbon dioxide. If society aggressively controlled carbon dioxide emissions, but ignored methane emissions, the planet would warm to the dangerous 1.5 to 2.0 degree Celsius threshold within 15 to 35 years. By reducing methane emissions, society buys some critical decades of lower temperatures.
“Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible,” Howarth said. “But to replace some fossil fuels – coal, oil – with another, like natural gas, will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st century and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar and water power.”