At the COP26 summit in Scotland in November 2021, the world’s leading climate scientists agreed that the #1 priority — the only measure to avert a catastrophic and irreversible climate crisis — is to immediately cut the climate super pollutants known as Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs), which include both methane and black carbon. A fundamental takeaway from COP26 is that the climate situation is now beyond dire. It’s no-more-messing-around time. We must work towards solutions with immediate impact, NOW.
So much focus is being placed on SLCPs because they account for half of today’s global warming and because reducing SLCPs is the only way to reduce dangerous warming trends right away. Methane alone is 75x more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year timeframe, so cutting methane emissions benefits the climate very quickly. Reducing CO2 emissions, by contrast, doesn’t begin to benefit the climate for several decades or longer. We can’t waste any precious time now with solutions that only focus on long-term CO2 reduction. Both must be pursued aggressively.
Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor (emeritus) of Climate Sciences, University of California, San Diego and Cornell Climate Solutions Scholar at Cornell University explains, “SLCP reductions benefit the climate right away. Everything California is doing to electrify transportation is positive, but since the lifetime of carbon dioxide is decades to a century, emissions reductions will take decades to benefit climate—until 2050 or later. We just simply need more immediate solutions. SLCP reductions are the most potent lever we have left to avoid catastrophic climate changes in the near term, so we need to broaden our focus.”
So how can California reduce SLCPs? Let’s first focus on methane reductions. Nearly 50% of methane emissions in California come from livestock manure and organic waste decomposing in landfills. To help address this, a new statewide law went into effect in 2022 requiring residents and businesses to recycle organic waste, with all jurisdictions mandated to provide organic waste collection services.
Methane is also emitted from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural waste, and other organic food and green waste. The California Energy Commission (CEC), California Air Resources Board (CARB), CalRecycle, and California Department of Food and Agriculture have already invested hundreds of millions of incentive dollars into projects to capture methane from these organic feedstocks harness it as biogas for the commercial transportation sector (a great start, but only capturing a fraction of what’s possible statewide!).
According to the data published in California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program, fueling with biomethane can enable commercial fleet operators to achieve (and even go beyond) carbon neutrality. As an added benefit, according to CARB data, California’s investments in reducing methane and other SLCPs have by far been the most cost-effective of all the state’s climate investments. According to the Bioenergy Association of California, with increased investment, the state could produce enough biomethane from organic waste streams to displace 80% of the 3 billion gallons of diesel used to fuel California’s heavy-duty trucks.
Being able to replace 8 out of 10 diesel trucks on California’s roads with ones that have a carbon negative footprint is an incredible opportunity. But wait, there’s more! Heavy-duty diesel trucks are a leading source of black carbon – the other powerful SLCP – and a primary reason that California continues to have the worst air quality in the country. Not only will reducing the use of diesel trucks on California’s highways help to provide immediate air quality relief to communities throughout the state, but the elimination of these black carbon emissions is another extremely powerful and important tool in the state’s fight to mitigate the impacts of climate change as quickly and as effectively as possible. Should displaced diesel trucks be replaced with ones using ultra-low carbon biomethane, the state has an incredible “one-two punch” opportunity to knock out the rapidly accelerating impacts of climate change.
Near-zero emission natural gas trucks are proven, cost-effective, commercially available, and road-tested and can play an incredibly important role in helping California to bend the warming curve. While California should be applauded for its mandate to transition all trucks to zero-emission models by 2045, but we simply don’t have the luxury of waiting another couple of decades to make meaningful progress. We need to utilize a portfolio of solutions and we need to act today. State leaders must step up, take responsibility, and refocus on reducing SLCPs as quickly, effectively, and efficiently as possible… our immediate future depends on it.