The sixth IPCC climate report is due out on Monday, but there are already broad hints about what it will say. Put together over a period of years by thousands of scientists and climate researchers in 195 countries, IPCC reports offer us a snapshot of where our planet is in terms of human survivability. Because it takes years to create and because scientists tend to be quite conservative when drawing conclusions, the reports, when they do arrive, are already out of date, meaning the latest research is often not included.
At the end of June, portions of the upcoming IPCC report were obtained by Agence France-Presse. In them, the authors issued stark warnings about how the Earth’s climate is rapidly approaching several tipping points that will lead to a cascade of related events. Once those tipping points are reached, there is no going back. No carbon capture, carbon taxes, or carbon trading schemes can undo what has been done. No new virtual power plants, grid-scale battery storage, or massive offshore wind farms will undo the damage that has been caused.
Higher average global temperatures speed up the melting of polar ice caps which means the poles don’t reflect as much sunlight back into space, which means the Earth gets hotter still, more melting occurs and the cycle speeds up. Not even Dingbat Donald can make it stop by drawing new lines on a chart with a Sharpie.
Bob Ward, the director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, tells The Guardian, “Scientists have identified several potential regional and global thresholds or tipping points in the climate beyond which impacts become unstoppable or irreversible, or accelerate. They could create huge social and economic responses, such as population displacements and conflict, and so represent the largest potential risks of climate change. Tipping points should be the climate change impacts about which policymakers worry the most, but they are often left out of assessments by scientists and economists because they are difficult to quantify.”
It’s The Methane, Stupid!
Today, The Guardian is reporting that IPCC 6 will contain one other startling conclusion. If we do not rein in the amount of methane going into the atmosphere, it will be impossible to achieve the goals agreed to by the world community in the Paris climate accords in 2015. And if we as a civilization fail to do that, our goose is cooked, literally and figuratively.
The report will say that methane is playing an ever greater role in overheating the planet. The carbon-rich gas, produced from animal farming, shale gas wells and poorly managed conventional oil and gas extraction, heats the world far more effectively than carbon dioxide — it has a “warming potential” more than 80 times that of CO2 — but has a shorter life in the atmosphere, persisting for about a decade before it degrades into CO2.
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the IPCC, tells The Guardian that methane reductions are probably the only way to avoid more than a 1.5º C rise in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Once that tipping point is reached (we are at around 1.2º C already), extreme weather will increase and more “tipping points” could be reached. “Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040. We need to face this emergency. We need to see at COP 26 a recognition of this problem, that we need to do something on this.”
In an odd quirk of fate, reducing the amount of coal burned can actually increase average global temperatures because the sulfur released when coal is burned actually blocks some sunlight, which cools the Earth slightly. Reducing methane emissions could offset the effects of burning less coal.
“Climate change is like a marathon — we need to stay in the race. Cutting carbon dioxide will not lead to cooling in the next 10 years, and beyond that our ability to tackle climate change will be so severely compromised that we will not be able to run on. Cutting methane gives us time,” Zaelke says.
Methane Levels Have Spiked
Levels of methane have risen sharply in recent years, caused by shale gas, poorly managed conventional gas, oil drilling, and meat production. Last year, methane emissions rose by a record amount, according to the UN, which is in stark contrast to the sharp decline in carbon emissions because of the pandemic.
Satellite data shows the key sources of methane are poorly managed Russian oil and gas wells. Gas can be extracted from conventional drilling using modern techniques that all but eliminate “fugitive” or accidental methane emissions. But while countries such as Qatar take care over methane, Russia, which is a party to the 2015 Paris climate agreement but has made little effort to cut its emissions, has some of the leakiest infrastructure.
“Today more than 40% of EU gas is methane heavy gas from Russia, which is worse than coal for the climate,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser now with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. “The EU should begin to measure and then regulate methane emissions from all its natural gas imports to begin a cleanup of global natural gas.”
The absurdity of it all is that methane released into the atmosphere can’t be sold. If Russia would simply address its decrepit infrastructure instead of nursing its grievances against the West, it could make more than enough money to pay for the needed upgrades many times over. But Pooty Poot won’t hear of it.
Zaelke is urging governments to craft a new set of agreements to support the Paris climate accords by sharply reducing the extraction, transportation and combustion of methane. “I predict we will have to have a global methane agreement,” he says. Concerns about methane being released from melting permafrost is a future problem. If we don’t slash methane emission today, we may not be around long enough to worry about melting permafrost later.
The COP 26 summit is in Scotland this fall. If it results in a new agreement on methane emissions, that will be wonderful news. If it does not, we will be one more step closer to climate Armageddon.