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There is no clean fossil fuel

(originally published by the Holland Sentinel on Apr. 7, 2021)

It is gratifying that the conversation in the U.S. appears to be shifting away from “Is climate change happening?“ to “What is the best plan for responding to the crisis?“

Recognizing climate change as a national priority will require legislative policies that address both mitigation and adaptation to our changing world, since executive orders by themselves are not sufficient to maintain a long-term strategy.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent over the course of this decade to get on the path to avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This will require tremendous coordinated effort involving curtailing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Even major corporations, such as BlackRock, Microsoft and Delta Airlines admit this and have committed to reducing their own emissions. As an atmospheric chemist deeply concerned about climate change, I’m happy that our congressman, Fred Upton, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and has introduced legislation to reduce emissions of methane, the major component of natural gas.

Natural gas has replaced coal for electricity production in many areas over the past several decades, and, from the standpoint of air quality (the cleanliness of the air that we breathe), natural gas is a better fuel than coal. It produces significantly less of the toxic pollution that leads to such problems as acid rain, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter, which together directly threaten human health, reduce agricultural yields, and damage building materials. Because of the improvement in air quality that comes with replacing coal with natural gas, natural gas is touted by some as “clean” energy,

Too often air quality and climate change are mistakenly considered to be one and the same issue. While they both result from the emission of pollution into the atmosphere that causes problems, they are distinctly different problems. Air quality problems are mostly regional issues that result from industrial and commercial activities and are potentially relatively short-lived problems that can be addressed by straightforward changes in procedures. As a society we decide how much degradation in air quality we will tolerate in exchange for economic benefits. Climate change, on the other hand, is a global issue with much more damaging and long-term impacts.

Climate change is driven largely by the emission of greenhouse gases (many of which contain carbon). These emissions reduce the amount of heat able to escape the planet and therefore trap additional energy in the Earth’s atmosphere. We see evidence of this excess energy in the increasing intensity of storms, for example. Many of these greenhouse gases are not toxic to plants and animals the way that pollutants that threaten air quality are, and therefore most greenhouse gases do not threaten air quality.

Carbon dioxide and methane (the two most important greenhouse gases driving climate change) do not significantly degrade air quality. Just as when coal is burned, the combustion of natural gas produces carbon dioxide, and leakage of unburned natural gas puts methane into the atmosphere. Despite its air quality improvement over coal, natural gas is not clean energy from the standpoint of climate change. Any fuel that puts carbon dioxide and/or methane into the atmosphere will make climate change worse, even if it has a minimal impact on air quality.

Luckily, the solutions to climate change will also improve air quality. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind will lead to a healthier and more stable planet. As we encourage our elected officials to work on sound and responsible policies that will address the urgent need for climate action, as stated by the IPCC, we should make sure they understand that, from the standpoint of climate change, there is no clean fossil fuel.

Carbon fee and dividend legislation, which puts a price on carbon pollution and returns the fees to American families, will create market-driven pressure to accelerate the growth of the renewable energy sector, incentivize innovation, and lead us to a sustainable future. There is no time to waste.

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