Stop burning things: time to choose alternatives to combustion

Bill McKibben, New Yorker, Jan 22, 2021

If one wanted a basic rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be: stop burning things. Human beings have made use of combustion for a very long time, ever since the first campfires cooked the first animals for dinner, allowing our brains to get larger. Now those large brains have come to understand that burning stuff is destroying the stable climate on which civilization depends.

Photograph by Liam McBurney / PA Wire / AP

By this point, it’s pretty clear to almost everyone that we’d be better off not burning coal, the first fossil fuel that we learned to set on fire in a big way. The explosions set off by a billion spark plugs every second around the world are—for serious motorheads—being replaced by the electric engines in the most admired cars on earth. Even natural gas, long heralded as the clean fossil fuel, is now widely understood to be climate-dangerous, spewing both CO2 and methane.

That leaves the original fuel for fires: wood. In the early years of the climate crisis, scientists thought that “biomass” was an exception to the burning rule. That’s because, when you cut down a tree and burn it, another one eventually grows in its place, theoretically sucking up the carbon dioxide that the burning emitted. But, in recent years, researchers have upended those calculations. For one thing, wood burns inefficiently, producing large amounts of carbon for each unit of energy that it produces. Worse, it takes decades for those forests to regrow and suck up that carbon—decades that we don’t have. We’re breaking the back of the climate system in real time and, as we’ve known for years, burning wood hurts, not helps. So far, large-scale biomass-burning to produce electricity has not become a major factor in the United States, but the fight is on: in Massachusetts, for example, where there’s a proposal to build an enormous wood-burning plant in Springfield, opponents are trying to insure that biomass isn’t counted as renewable energy under state guidelines.

In Europe, where official E.U. policy still treats biomass as “carbon-neutral,” the dystopia is much further advanced. Big coal-powered stations have been reconfigured to burn wood, and, as Hazel Sheffield recently made clear in a long exposé for the Guardian, the demand for pellets to keep those boilers fired—particularly in the Netherlands, Denmark, and the U.K.—is stripping forests in places such as Estonia and Latvia. As Timothy Searchinger points out, in the Los Angeles Times, the Dutch and the Danes may start phasing out subsidies, but the British plan on giving ten billion euros by 2027 to the giant Drax power plant, in the North of England, one of the world’s largest woodstoves. And much of the wood to stoke that conflagration is actually being shipped from the Southeast United States, where, according to a long investigative piece in The Daily Climate, by Danielle Purifoy, the industrial-scale deforestation—hold your surprise—“is bringing air pollution, noise and reduced biodiversity in majority Black communities.” As one North Carolina resident put it, “When I looked at the officer that was choking George Floyd, and he said ‘I can’t breathe,’ this is the same thing that the industries are doing to our communities.”

A pair of recent scientific studies in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change make even clearer the utter folly of what we’re doing: one, conducted in the Pacific Northwest, by researchers, including Beverly Law’s team at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, shows that big trees are superb carbon sinks (three per cent of the largest trees contain almost half the forest’s carbon); the other, led by the eminent climate scientist William R. Moomaw, compares planting trees with simply preserving existing groves: “growing existing forests intact to their ecological potential—termed proforestation—is a more effective, immediate, and low-cost approach that could be mobilized across suitable forests of all types.”

It’s possible to stop burning things on planet Earth because of our solar system’s star, ninety-three million miles away. The sun’s not quite like a campfire—it’s a ball of gas heated by nuclear fusion—but close enough. And, for at least the next billion years, we can expect it to send the light that activates solar panels, and to heat the earth in ways that drive our winds. Since the large brain originally underwritten by those fire-cooked meals has figured out how to take advantage of that distant force (check out the newest wind turbine from G.E., roughly twice the size of the London Eye Ferris wheel and able to power a town of twelve thousand homes), we can, and must, bring the combustion age to a swift end.


Emily Atkin, in her Heated newsletter, details the 2020 achievements of the fossil-fuel divestment movement. “If climate activists want to be successful in 2021,” she writes, “their focus should be to crush the business of climate destruction.”

Writing in the Law360 trade journal, Ryan Boysen describes the swelling movement among law students to force big firms to stop representing fossil-fuel companies. As one explained, “I kind of subscribed to the great-man version of legal history, where you have litigators who change the system through their legal brilliance and persistence, this idea of lawyers as saviors. But now I think that’s wrong. To truly create change, you need a broader vision. You need a movement.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, flags an important case before the Supreme Court, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra, that could make it easier for networks such as the ones assembled by the Koch brothers to hide their political spending. “The lost decade on climate change was lost to Citizens United,” Whitehouse writes, and this case could make things exponentially worse

● Benjamin Strauss, who runs the Climate Central science-communications group, has come up with a new graphic way to show just how anomalous our moment is. The “carbon skyscraper” manages to really get across the pace at which we’re overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. “Speed kills,” he writes. “That’s why firing bullets from a gun is more dangerous than tossing them by hand. Why skydivers use parachutes. Why roads have speed limits. And why it’s critical to understand how quickly human activity will drive the climate to change, compared with past rates.”

The Economist, which has been providing sound coverage of climate change for more than a decade, has produced a twenty-one-minute video that should be mandatory viewing for corporate boards around the world. It explains in compelling terms the spiralling danger of global warming to both the planet and to corporate profits, and includes the mind-concentrating fact that the California utility giant P.G. & E. has already pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with its role in that state’s devastating Camp Fire.

Big Oil has donated $5.4 million to the seven U.S. senators who voted not to honor the results of the Presidential election, according to a Greenpeace tally.

⬆️ Axis Capital becomes the first North American insurer to pledge that it won’t underwrite oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We believe climate-related risks are among the most serious issues facing the world today,” Conrad Brooks, the general counsel and corporate secretary of the Bermuda-based firm, wrote in a letter to the Gwich’in Steering Committee. The Gwich’in people have won a series of remarkable victories in persuading financiers to back away from Arctic drilling, which the Trump Administration had tried to force through.

⬆️ New data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology show that electric vehicles are already cheaper to own than their internal-combustion counterparts.



SCIENCE Natural gas is a much ‘dirtier’ energy source than we thought: Coal, oil, and gas are responsible for much more atmospheric methane, the super-potent warming gas, than previously known.


In the thick of a Greenland summer of field work in 2015, Benjamin Hmiel and his team drilled into the massive ice sheet’s frozen innards, periodically hauling up a motorcycle-engine-sized chunk of crystalline ice. The ice held part of the answer to a question that had vexed scientists for years: How much of the methane in the atmosphere, one of the most potent sources of global warming, comes from the oil and gas industry?

Previously, geologic sources like volcanic seeps and gassy mud pots were thought to spit out about 10 percent of the methane that ended up in the atmosphere each year. But new research, published this week in Nature, suggests that natural geologic sources make up a much smaller fraction of the methane in today’s atmosphere. Instead, the researchers say, that methane is most likely attributable to industry. Added up, the results indicate we’ve underestimated the methane impacts of fossil fuel extraction by up to 40 percent.

That’s both bad news for climate change and good, says Hmiel, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Rochester. Bad, because it means that oil and gas production has had a messier, bigger impact on the greenhouse gas budget than scientists knew. But Hmiel finds the result encouraging for almost the same reason: The more of the methane emissions that can be pinpointed to human activity like oil and gas extraction, the more control it means policymakers, businesses, and regulators have to fix the problem.

“If we think of the total methane in the atmosphere as slices of a pie—one slice is from ruminants, this other is from wetlands. The slice is we used to think was from geologic methane was too big,” says Hmiel. “So what we’re saying is that the fossil fuel pie slice is larger than what we thought, and we can have a bigger influence on the size of the slice, because it’s something we can control.”

Methane, the “bridge” fuel—but a bridge to where?

A potent greenhouse gas, methane’s carbon core and hydrogen arms are arranged in a configuration that makes it exceptional at absorbing heat. On a 20-year timescale, a methane molecule is roughly 90 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than a molecule of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that wields the most control over Earth’s future warming in the long-term.TODAY’SPOPULAR STORIESSCIENCECORONAVIRUS COVERAGEFDA confirms Moderna’s vaccine is 94.1-percent effective; emergency approval expected this weekANIMALSMeet Phelan the rescue pup—now America’s fastest dogSCIENCEWho is really ‘first in line’ for the vaccine? It depends on your state.

Methane’s atmospheric concentrations have increased by at least 150 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Because of its potency, the more of it there is in the air the harder it will be to keep the planet’s temperatures from soaring past global climate goals.

Methane is also the protagonist in a planet-wide, decades-long scientific mystery: Where, exactly, does all the extra methane heating up the atmosphere today all come from? Is it cow burps or rice paddies? Leaks from oil and gas production? Burbling gassy mud volcanoes or seeps along the Earths shifting seams?

Over the past few decades, as calls to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have grown louder and natural gas collection technologies like fracking have gotten cheaper, many coal-fired power plants across the United States and abroad have retired. In the U.S. over 500 coal-fired power plants have closed since 2010. In many cases they are replaced by natural gas (which is made up primarily of methane gas) plants, which now produce nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’s energy needs.

Methane burns more efficiently than coal, making it a better option, carbon-cost-wise and air-pollution-wise, than coal. It also sticks around in the atmosphere for much less time than CO2—an average of nine years, compared to CO2’s hundreds.

Because of its characteristics, natural gas has been often been touted as a “bridge fuel” to help smooth the transition to a carbon-neutral energy future. Natural gas plants fill energy needs today while renewable or carbon-negative technologies develop.

“The question is: Is this a bridge fuel, or is it going to be around for a very long time?” says Sheila Olmstead, an environmental economist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The market is telling us it’s probably going to be around for a long time.”

However, the climate cost of natural gas has relied on a basic assumption: There are less total carbon emissions from natural gas than from other sources. But in recent years a flotilla of scientific studies have brought that assumption into question, primarily by looking at how much gas is lost during the production process.

If there are very few leaks or losses along the way—less than a few percent of the total amount of gas recovered—the math breaks even or comes out ahead. But if that “leakage rate” climbs over more than about 1 percent of the total gas recovered, the budget gets fuzzy, says Robert Howarth, a climate scientist at Cornell.

One recent study found that the widely used “leakage rate” of gas in the U.S. natural gas production process could be over 2 percent. Others, looking at specific “super emitters” in major drilling regions of the US, have found even more leakage.

“Over the past few years of research I’d say the whole argument for methane for a bridge fuel is really gone,” says Howarth. “But if we go back and say we really do need natural gas for a while, that calculation depends on methane’s break-even point. And we’re not sure we’re close to that.”

It’s critical to phase out CO2 emissions, stresses Jessika Trancik, an energy expert at MIT, because that’s the stuff that will keep the planet locked in for long-term warming. But for the climate goals the world is scrambling to hit right now—keeping air temperatures from soaring the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) temperature goals from the 2015 Paris Agreement—it’s also critical to keep any extra methane from leaking into the atmosphere.

“It’s impossible to hit those climate targets with methane in the mix,” says Lena Höglund Isaksson, a greenhouse gas expert at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

(See methane flowing from a leak at a natural gas storage field near Los Angeles).

The ice has answers

It’s remarkably difficult to figure out how much of the methane in the atmosphere comes from human sources, like oil and gas drilling or burning, how much comes from other human-influenced source like agriculture, and how much comes from natural sources like volcanic seeps.

Where it comes from determines what humans can do about it. If it’s oil and gas, we can fix the systems to produce less. If it’s volcanoes, we might be less able to manage the emissions.

“It’s like a detective story,” says Höglund Isaksson.

In the past, scientists made estimates of how much so-called natural methane comes from geologic sources by trekking to a particular seep or muddy volcano and very carefully measuring its emissions. Then the scientists would scale up those observations to make an estimate for the entire planet. Using that strategy, most estimates put the annual contribution of natural geology-sourced methane at about 50 teragrams per year, around 10 percent of the total annual amount of methane emitted. Recent estimates put the total annual methane contribution from acquiring and burning fossil fuels at just under 200 teragrams.

Hmiel’s team suspected that the geologic sources might actually be even smaller—and they had a place to test that suspicion: the wide, flat Greenland ice sheet. The ice there, buried over 100 meters below the surface, dated from before the Industrial Revolution got underway in the 1800s, and so it had pre-industrial methane trapped inside tiny air bubbles in its frozen lattice.

They dug up over 2,000 pounds of ice. Then they sucked the methane-containing air out of the bubbles trapped in the ice.

Methane from natural geologic sources has a slightly different chemical makeup than methane from other sources, like wetlands. The methane sucked out of the 250-year-old ice contained traces of only a tiny amount of geologic methane. And because the samples were from before the start of the Industrial Revolution and the concurrent increase in methane from coal and oil, there were no traces of methane from fossil fuels.

In contrast, samples from after the Industrial Revolution started showed a telltale fingerprint of fossil fuels.

But the key finding was about how little methane from geologic sources there was in the ice: the equivalent of no more than about 5 teragrams of methane released to the atmosphere per year, in those pre-fossil-fuel-dependent days. It’s unlikely that the geology has changed in that short a time, so that estimate is, Hmiel says, a good assumption for what geology is contributing today, as well.

Crucially, that contribution is 10 times smaller than other estimates—including those used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—used to make scientific assessments and policy decisions.

Overall, scientists have long known exactly how much methane there is in the atmosphere. That number hasn’t changed: There’s still about 570 teragrams of methane collecting in the atmosphere each year. But if there’s a lot less from the natural geologic sources, some other source must make up the difference. The team could also demonstrate that the most likely source is oil and gas operations.

If oil and gas operations have had a much bigger footprint on methane emissions than previously known, Hmiel thought, that also means they can clean up those emissions—both by reducing the amount of gas used and by cleaning up the leaks, flares, and other wasted gas from the process.

“Power utilities that are currently choosing whether to focus on wind and solar or gas—if they choose gas, it’s crucial to understand that that plant is going to be around for decades,” says Olmstead.

“They have real staying power well beyond what the nameplate expiration date is. Knowing that, does that change the decisions we make today? That we’ll have effects on methane emissions 10, 20, 30, 40 years into the future?”

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