Monday, May 21, 2012

How to Make Progress on Global Warming

For those frustrated by the lack of progress on combating global warming, a possible path forward is suggested in a Foreign Affairs article by David G.Victor, Charles F. Kennel, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan: A Climate Threat We Can Beat: What It Is and How to Deal with It.

The authors make the point that the lack of progress on arriving at a viable plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions should not divert one’s attention from other green house gases that are of considerable importance.

"At least 40 percent of current global warming can be blamed on four other types of pollutants: dark soot particles called black carbon, methane, lower atmospheric ozone, and industrial gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used as coolants in refrigerators. Nearly all these pollutants have life spans of just a few weeks to a decade -- much shorter than that of carbon dioxide. But although their tenure is brief, they are potent warmers. Emitting just one ton of black carbon, for example, has the same immediate effect on warming as emitting 500-2,000 tons of carbon dioxide."

Limiting these pollutants would not arouse the political and social angst that has hindered progress on carbon dioxide. In fact, a program to address them would be a social and economic boon.

"A few hundred million tons of crops are lost to ozone smog every year; in India, air pollutants have decreased the production of rice by about ten million tons per year, compared with annual output in the 1980s. Globally, the inhalation of soot produced by cooking indoors already kills about two million people each year, mostly women and children living in extreme poverty. And because soot is dark, it traps heat from sunlight and thus speeds melting when it settles on mountain glaciers -- a direct threat to drinking-water supplies and agricultural lands that depend on glacier-fed river systems in China and India, such as the Ganges, the Indus, and the Yangtze."

The technology for controlling these pollutants is already in hand. What is required is the implementation of the appropriate policies. The authors predict that the world is much more ready to address these pollutants than it is to get serious about carbon dioxide.

"Owing to these near-term economic and public health risks, even countries that have been skittish about costly long-term efforts to regulate carbon dioxide are already proving more willing to confront short-lived pollutants."

There is much to be gained in pursuing the short-term goal of minimizing the four identified pollutants.

"Last year, the UNEP [United Nations Environment Program] summarized their work, highlighting the potential benefits of installing new cookstoves, building more efficient power plants [curbing emissions], and plugging the leaks that occur when natural gas is extracted from wells. The UNEP concluded that such steps would make it possible to cut 40 percent of global man-made methane emissions and almost 75 percent of global black carbon emissions by 2030. Those reductions could ultimately prevent as many as five million deaths every year and safeguard as many as 140 million tons of corn, rice, and soybeans every year -- the equivalent of four percent of annual global production. These measures would also halve the global warming expected to occur between now and 2050...."

The emphasis is mine.

The authors claim that it was a strategic error to focus so heavily in climate diplomacy on producing reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

"No permanent solution to the climate problem is feasible without tackling carbon dioxide, but the economic and geophysical realities of carbon dioxide emissions almost guarantee political gridlock."

A multinational approach to limiting these emissions, one in which nations such as India and China would benefit from participation, would set a precedent for cooperation. Once the precedent is set and is successful, it should be easier to let the momentum carry the diplomats on to the next stage.

And buying a little extra time can only help.

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