We’re used to the idea that CO2—one carbon atom, two oxygen atoms—is a dangerous molecule. Indeed, driving down carbon-dioxide emissions has become the way that many leaders and journalists describe our task. But CH4—one carbon atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, otherwise known as methane—is carbon dioxide’s evil twin. It traps heat roughly eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide does, which explains why the fact that it’s spiking in the atmosphere scares scientists so much. Despite the pandemic lockdown, 2020 saw the largest single increase in methane in the atmosphere since we started taking measurements, in the nineteen-eighties. It’s a jump that, last month, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “fairly surprising and disturbing.”
If there’s any good news, it’s that the spike in methane doesn’t—yet—seem to be coming in large percentages from the runaway melt of methane-ice formations beneath the polar oceans or those in tundra soils. That would be a nightmare scenario because there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it—it’s global heating on automatic. For the moment, most of the increase seems to be from sources we can control: rice paddies, livestock, and, especially, the rapid rise in drilling and fracking for gas. Two decades ago, people thought that natural gas, though a fossil fuel, might help slow climate change because, when you burn it in a power station, it produces less carbon than burning coal does. Now we understand that natural gas—which is primarily made of methane—leaks unburned at every stage from fracking to combustion, whether in a power plant or on top of your stove, in sufficient quantities to make it an enormous climate danger. The Trump Administration abandoned any effort even to reduce that leakage, an absurd gift to the fossil-fuel industry that the Biden Administration is preparing to take away. But plugging leaks isn’t enough: we’ve got to stop producing natural gas as quickly as possible, and replace it with renewables that generate neither carbon nor methane. As I wrote last month, that’s now entirely possible; sun and wind power have become so cheap so fast that they’re more economical than gas, and batteries are coming down the same kind of cost curve, so nightfall is no longer the problem it once was.
But there are other reasons to kick gas. A report from Australia’s Climate Council, released last week, finds that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, and accounts for about twelve per cent of childhood asthma. “It’s odourless, it’s invisible, it’s a bit of silent enemy,” the C.E.O. of Asthma Australia said. “People might feel differently if they understood that their gas appliances were emitting a range of toxic substances.” [Continue reading…]