Super pollutants become super important

Super pollutants become super important

gas pipe maintenance
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Flames releasing methane from gas pipe maintenance on gas distribution site.

Adapted from State of Green Business 2019, published by GreenBiz in partnership with Trucost, part of S&P Global.

There’s something in the air and it isn’t just carbon dioxide. As the world bickers over the correct paths for CO2 emissions reductions over the next quarter-century and beyond, a growing number of policymakers and corporate leaders are prioritizing more swift, short-term action to mitigate so-called super pollutants.

What makes a pollutant "super"? GHGs such as methane, black carbon (aka soot), chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) don’t have a long lifespan in the atmosphere. They may waft for days or decades rather than the centuries carbon dioxide is expected to hang around. But these GHGs are troublesome because they have an outsize negative impact during their time in the biosphere.

If more isn’t done aggressively to reduce or phase out these super pollutants, the global temperature could rise even faster than anticipated, say experts. "Mitigation of super pollutants is the only way to keep it below 2 degrees [Celsius] by 2050," alongside long-term strategies for reducing CO2, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, distinguished professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said at an event in September. The good news: Heroic cities, states, industry sectors and companies are flexing their super powers to combat super pollutants. 

Part of that is a natural benefit of setting science-based targets. Take Tyson Foods, the world’s largest processor of chickens and pigs, which embraced a meaty new science-based sustainability agenda last spring. It is launching a test program within its refrigerated truck fleet in 2019 for a next-generation engine from Achates Power that reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions up to 90 percent.

Why does that matter? NOx, spewed by agricultural fertilizer production and fuel combustion, accounted for about 6 percent of U.S. GHG emissions in 2016. NOx variants are considered a more potent warmer than CO2, plus they damage the ozone layer.

Astonishingly, while President Donald Trump’s appointees have deflated dozens of environmental protections, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pumping up regulations for NOx emissions, suggesting new, more aggressive rules for heavy-duty trucks in 2020. Meanwhile, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines and Sweden were among the first to sign onto the Talanoa Statement, which advocates strong mitigation actions to cut methane, HFCs, black carbon (sooty material emitted from gas and diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and other sources burning fossil fuels) and ground-level ozone — with human health as the most powerful motivator.

Elsewhere, various actors are prioritizing accelerated replacement of HFCs, a refrigerant commonly used in air conditioners and commercial building chillers. The Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol — the framework credited with reversing depletion of the earth’s ozone layer — was adopted in late 2016, and the phaseout began at the beginning of 2019.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is working with some of the biggest makers of air conditioning systems technologies to catalyze safer substances by 2023 (for home AC systems) and 2024 (for commercial chillers). Among its collaborators are HVAC equipment manufacturers Carrier, Chemours, Dalkin Applied Americas, Goodman Manufacturing, Honeywell, Lennox, Nortek Global and Trane.

U.S. states — especially members of the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance — are also becoming more proactive. Maryland, Connecticut and New York vowed last fall to phase out HFCs, and California previously declared its intention to do so — its rule took effect in January. The alliance’s long-term vision is to reduce emissions from what it calls short-lived climate pollutants by up to 50 percent by 2030.

Super pollutants are particularly important to address before they cough up a humanitarian crisis over the next decade. That’s because as the earth warms, the need to air condition our living and work spaces will increase. "Cooling is central to everything," Rachel Kyte, CEO and special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Sustainability at Energy for All, said at the Global Climate Action Summit in September. That goes for humans, food and life-saving medicines.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 at trapping GHGs during its first two decades in the atmosphere — one reason scientists are fuming over global permafrost thaws, which stand to release millions of tons of methane as polar ice caps melt. Another concern bubbling up closer to terra firma is the rapid pace at which U.S. utilities and energy developers are retiring coal-fired power plants and adding natural gas-powered plans to the electricity grid. That’s because natural gas production and delivery systems are notoriously leaky. Against that backdrop, the Trump administration has signaled it will step back from enforcing leak detection and elimination rules established under President Barack Obama, potentially adding fuel to the fire.

The federal flip-flop has prompted an outcry about asthma and other health issues linked with methane pollution, and it is fueling renewed corporate- and state-level action. California, New York and Virginia have suggested a slew of regulations. Colorado was the first state to regulate emissions from oil and gas operations in 2014, and Vermont’s recycling system prioritizes reducing methane leaking from landfills.

What’s more, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has announced plans to launch a satellite to identify and measure methane from "humanmade sources." The first focus is on oil and gas operations. MethaneSAT, as it’s been dubbed, will be capable of monitoring regions that account for more than 80 percent of global production.

EDF is also working with major oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, that are taking action to address methane through the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The group’s high-level agenda is to reduce the footprint of the "energy value chain." For forward-thinking manufacturing companies — including food businesses such as Cargill and Mars, automotive giant General Motors and cosmetics and personal care company L’Oreal — advancing the use of energy from biomass, biogas, geothermal, landfill gas and solar thermal sources is becoming a more urgent priority of GHG-reduction efforts. Smithfield Foods has gone one step further: It created a $250 million joint venture with the Virginia utility Dominion Energy to turn the methane captured at its hog farms into electricity.

Addressing thermal energy loads related to manufacturing will be an important component of addressing super pollutants, particularly methane. Up to two-thirds of the energy usage at Mars, for example, is linked to direct operations, where it consumes significant volumes of natural gas. For that reason, the company is stepping up its development of low-carbon and zero-carbon options, including biomass and solar thermal alternatives.

"The list of who needs this is much longer than the list of people that realize they need this," Kevin Rabinovitch, global vice president of sustainability for Mars, noted in mid-2018. "There are a lot of people who haven’t quite appreciated how important this issue is." But heading into 2019, change is in the air.

Key players to watch

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions — is focusing attention on practical, renewable options and technologies for industrial and thermal energy consumption, a major source of methane emissions.

Climate & Clean Air Coalition — a group of more than 100 governments, businesses, scientific organizations and other stakeholders in 2018 became more proactive in suggesting super pollutant policies and solutions.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) — the NGO is actively addressing methane pollution by developing a satellite detection system and working with oil and gas companies to help them minimize the impact of production.

Renewable Thermal Collaborative — an initiative of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance encourages the use of renewable energy that could displace natural gas and coal consumption such as biomass, biogas, geothermal, landfill gas and solar thermal for heating and cooling applications.

U.S. Climate Alliance — the bipartisan coalition of 17 governors represents 40 percent of the country’s population that is dedicated to acting on climate issues, and is prioritizing super pollutants.