Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A fast, cheap way to cool the planet?

Another interesting article on what to do about global warming, if indeed something needs to be done, appears in today's Wall Street Journal. The authors are Robert Watson and Mohamed El-Ashry. Read it here.

The Lomborg piece, also from the WSJ, which I recently posted, argued that we should allow warming to occur and concentrate on mitigating its effects. Today's article argues that we should be attacking atmopheric methane rather than carbon dioxide. Although there is much less methane than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, each molecule of methane produces many times more greenhouse effect than a carbon dioxide molecule does. And the authors claim that methane only lasts about a decade compared to the much longer lived carbon dioxide, so by cutting down emissions atmospheric methane levels could be reduced very quickly.

The authors maintain that reducing atmospheric methane would be much less expensive than the proposed attacks on carbon dioxide. They thus share Lomborg's interest in minimizing the costs of solving the problem (if it is a problem), but differ in the details.

My wife and I recently toured the Coffin Butte Resource Project, near Corvallis, Oregon, where methane from a landfill is being captured and used to generate 5.66 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply an estimated 4,000 homes. This prevents the methane from escaping into the atmosphere and also somewhat reduces the need to burn coal or natural gas to produce electricity.

Cattle farms are another major source of methane, so a reduction in the amount of beef consumed per capita might also help reduce methane emissions. (The methane produced by cows could be captured and used to generate power, but unfortunately this would increase the incentive to keep the cows cruelly packed into indoor feedlots, since capturing the methane produced outdoors in pastures would be much more expensive.)

In any event it seems to me that in solving any problem we cannot afford to ignore the costs of the solutions. Accordingly, the analyses of Lomborg and of Watson and El-Ashry should be given serious consideration.

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