A major new United Nations report makes it extremely clear that relying on natural gas won’t help the world avoid climate catastrophe. Once seen as a “bridge fuel” that could provide a less-polluting alternative to coal and other fossil fuels, growing evidence shows that gas is a bigger culprit in the climate crisis than previously thought.
Though it’s been attractively branded as “natural” gas, the fuel is primarily plain old methane. When burned, the fuel does produce less carbon dioxide than coal and oil. The problem is that extracting so-called natural gas and bringing it to homes and buildings leads to a lot of methane leaks. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times more power to warm the planet than carbon dioxide — especially in the first couple decades after it’s unleashed on the atmosphere. In fact, methane has been responsible for nearly a third of global warming that’s already taken place.
“When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging”
Human-caused methane emissions will need to drop by 45 percent this decade in order to avoid worst-case climate scenarios and meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations report warns. Expanding natural gas consumption and infrastructure would jeopardize those targets.
“One thing the report calls for very strongly is not building any more of this fossil fuel infrastructure,” Drew Shindell, lead author of the report and a professor at Duke University, said in a press conference. “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
Fortunately, achieving those methane cuts is affordable and possible with existing technology, according to the report. For starters, fossil fuel industries need to do a better job of preventing leaks. But that alone won’t be enough. In the long run, keeping the current fossil fuel infrastructure would derail efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. And while emerging technologies that capture carbon dioxide from polluting power plants might do some good, “there are multiple risks that this technology will not work, will be too expensive, and/or will have so many side effects that society will not want to use it,” according to the report. Bottom line: the report calls for a sweeping transition to renewable energy, which it says would “remove the bulk of methane emissions” in the long term.
Agriculture and waste are other sectors with major methane footprints, making up 40 percent and 20 percent of human-caused emissions, respectively. So the report also calls for reducing meat and dairy in diets, and cutting food waste.
Slashing methane is also good for air quality, since it is one of the pollutants that contributes to smog. So cutting methane by 45 percent this decade wouldn’t just be good for the climate. It could also prevent 255,000 premature deaths and 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits each year, according to the report.
The most immediate benefits
The United Nation’s new findings on methane follow a landmark 2018 report on carbon dioxide, which called for a similar reduction in carbon dioxide this decade. While CO2 has gained the most notoriety as a greenhouse gas, methane is now in the spotlight. While CO2 can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years, methane is much shorter-lived — it can dissipate within a decade. That ultimately means that, while eliminating carbon dioxide emissions is vital, taking on methane could lead to the most immediate benefits for people and the planet.