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Scientists warn that aggregate global warming of over 2 degrees Celsius (˚C) or even 1.5˚C could harm our planet and its habitability beyond repair. This sober admonition is often followed by the reassurance that we know the mark we need to hit — net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. We must take carbon emissions out of power production, transportation, agriculture, buildings and industry.
There is reason for optimism on reducing carbon emissions because people around the globe are showing the determination and innovation that California has used to lead the way. Butcarbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not the only threat; we need to take on the warming curve. Right now, certain “super pollutants” (also known as short-lived cliamte pollutants) — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used as coolants; methane emissions from natural gas, landfills and farms; and black carbon soot from wood burning, wildfires and incomplete diesel fuel combustion — cause as much as 40 percent of planet heating. Fortunately, these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere. If we act aggressively to reduce and eliminate them, we can dramatically slow climate change. If we don’t curb them very soon, our work to abate carbon dioxide emissions won’t be enough to avoid catastrophe.
We can cut the rate of warming in half within 20 years if we immediately take three steps.
First, cut the use of HFCs with high warming potential by 100 percent. Last year, the federal government took a big step. The bipartisan American Innovation and Manufacturing Leadership Act became law as part of the year-end spending package. It phases down the production and consumption of HFCs by 85 percent over 15 years and authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish schedules for specific sectors to transition to next-generation non-warming coolants. Crucially, the bill was supported by the domestic coolant industry, which sees the rest of the world moving to next generation products and wants a regulatory scheme that will protect its jobs and ensure it’s not left out.
Next, we must curb methane emissions by 50 percent from major sources: natural gas waste, food waste and farms.
Fugitive methane is emitted all along the natural gas production, transmission and distribution chain. Performance-based regulation employed by Europe provides a good model: the EPA would adopt methane emission limits that would decline over time, with aggressive monitoring for compliance. Natural gas producers are facing market pressure from customers demanding gas produced without methane leakage, and France recently rejected a U.S. gas shipment for being “dirty.” Enough of the industry will be open to action to get the results we desperately need quickly.
We need to get food waste out of landfills. A third of our food is dumped in landfills, generating the methane equivalent of 37 million cars. Organizations like Feeding San Diego have developed ways to distribute food to the needy before it’s expired; that makes sense for food security and the environment. The nonedible food waste can be processed through biodigesters to produce renewable fuels.
We must lessen methane from farms. We can all eat a little or a lot less meat. Meanwhile, the methane and climate pollutants produced by cattle and other livestock can be abated with feed additives and manure management: again, biodigesters can be used to produce renewable fuels.
Finally, we must cut 75 percent of black carbon soot. Black carbon is a super pollutant and causes lung disease, cancer and asthma. It is especially harmful to communities near highways or industrial facilities, which tend to be poorer and are disproportionately hurt by air pollution. This means transitioning to soot-free diesel. We can retrofit diesel vehicles to use ultra-low sulfur diesel and particulate filters as we transition to zero-emission technology.
Black soot also results from wildfires. Last year, California’s cataclysmic wildfire season led to record-breaking pollution. Particulate matter from these fires exceeded World Health Organization air quality standards several times over, exacerbating risks for COVID lung infections — another reason we must aggressively address forest management and wildfire prevention. We should develop markets for sustainable wood, including new building materials, from forest restoration and wildfire mitigation.
Reining in carbon dioxide emissions is critical. But we must act to remove super pollutants today or decarbonization won’t be enough. This should start with a 10-year sprint to cut super pollutants as part of our renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate issues, which Joe Biden rejoined the first day of his presidency. It is anticipated that the administration will unveil our national climate plan for the Paris Agreement during the president’s Climate Leaders Summit on Earth Day in April. We hope it shows how to cut super climate pollutants and cut the rate of global warming in half.
This opinion piece first appeared on February 17, 2021, in the San Dieago Union-Tribune here.