The Shortcuts To Curbing Climate Change

After years and years of failing to address carbon emissions, scientists are urging that we at least cut some more easily managed greenhouse gasses. At this point, it may be the best we can do (and our only hope).

The Shortcuts To Curbing Climate Change
Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Tackling the climate change issue is by no means simple, and we’re failing at it by almost any measure. Just take a look at what happened at the past few COP climate change conferences to see how abysmally the world’s leaders are handling the challenge. In the face of this inaction, scientists from Columbia University’s Earth Institute have found some smaller, stopgap measures that may offer some respite from climate change without requiring massive government commitment and societal shifts.


The Institute offers two relatively simple ways to stave off climate change in the coming decades, since we can’t do what is actually nessecary. Instead of focusing on cutting back CO2 emissions, we need to instead work on cutting soot (a by-product of burning coal, wood, and dung) and methane.

This doesn’t mean CO2 can be ignored entirely. “Ultimately, we have to deal with CO2, but in the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable, and it brings fast benefits,” explained lead study author Drew Shindell in a statement.

Methane, for example, is much more potent than CO2, but it cycles out of the atmosphere much faster than carbon dioxide–meaning that steps taken to cut methane will show results decades before cuts in CO2 reveal any changes. There are also relatively quick fixes for limiting methane’s release into the atmosphere. Cutting leakage from long-distance pipelines, retrofitting old wastewater treatment plants, even slashing emissions from manure at farms.

Reducing soot will also require some seemingly small (but important) changes: banning the burning of agricultural lands, taking the most polluting vehicles on the road out of commission, installing filters on diesel vehicles, and building efficient brick kilns and boilers.

Still doesn’t sound easy? Maybe not, but reducing methane and soot is cost-efficient–it costs less than $250 to prevent one metric ton of methane from being released into the atmosphere, and benefits range from $700 to $5,000, not to mention the countless premature deaths that could be averted and the crop yields that can be preserved as a result of slowing climate change.

Eventually, we’ll have to deal with CO2. But realistically, it’s a lot easier to cut familiar substances like soot, which countries have been dealing with for years.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.