Real talk: when it comes to dealing with climate change—and reducing carbon emissions, the top man-made cause of warming—the international community is doing a crap job. The U.N. process is bogged down, with ambitions that seem to shrink each year even as the summits themselves grow longer and longer. Europe’s emissions trading scheme (ETS)—the biggest carbon market in the world—is apparently a total mess. And the U.S. is…well, the U.S. really has no comprehensive climate program to speak of, and given the Republican party’s denialist take on climate change, the country is one potentially one Presidential election away from going in reverse on global warming. It’s not that zero progress is being made—renewable energy keeps growing, new air pollution rules are cutting into coal and energy efficiency is impacting oil demand. But this isn’t where we thought we’d be almost five years ago at the Bali summit.
So with the front door locked on climate action, it might be time to try the back. That’s why the U.S.—as well as representatives from the U.N. and several other countries—is getting behind a new initiative to reduce black carbon, methane and other “short-lived” greenhouse gases, so called because they remain in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than CO2. Rather than focusing only on carbon dioxide—which has proven stubbornly difficult to reduce, given that CO2 is part of nearly every major source of energy—working to cut the secondary gases opens up new ways to slow down warming and get side benefits to public health and agriculture. Better yet, focusing on black carbon and methane can help the international community bypass the developed vs. developing world impasse that has essentially frozen action on climate change. “You can’t [deal with climate change] without taking on CO2, but you can have a very positive impact by tackling the short-term gases,” said a senior Administration official who spoke on background to reporters before the announcement. “This helps us reduce emissions.”
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Why go after black carbon, methane and other short-lived climate gases? Mario Molina and Durwood Zaeike of the University of California-Berkeley made the case recently:
The U.S. can make progress even in a dysfunctional political climate, by focusing on reducing two local air pollutants, black carbon (soot) and ground-level ozone, alongwith hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), man-made chemicals used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and insulating foams. Indeed, recent science shows the U.S., with Mexico and other willing nations, can help lead a global effort to reduce these three warming agents and thereby cut the rate of global warming in half for the next three or four decades.
These warming agents are as important for what they are not, as for what they are. Most significantly, they are not carbon dioxide (CO2), and they can be cut without waiting for U.S. politicians to fully recognize and address the reality of climate change and the role of CO2 from fossil fuels. Nor need we wait for the painfully slow international negotiations to produce a new global climate treaty to take effect in 2020 or beyond.
The good news is that black carbon and ground-level zone can be controlled using existing technologies, and in most cases existing air pollution laws and existing institutions, at the national and regional level. HFCs can be controlled under the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty, which has already phased out nearly 100 similar chemicals and has built the capacity in every country of the world to reduce HFCs quickly.
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The good news about black carbon especially is that cuts in the gas also benefit public health in addition to slowing warming. Those impacts won’t really be felt in developed countries, where we’ve reduced black carbon—better known as soot—over the years thanks to air pollution regulations and better engines. But anyone who has traveled to the developing world knows the impact of soot—the dark, cough-inducing haze that hangs over cities like New Delhi or Jakarta, and which has only worsened as the numbers of cars and trucks in those countries has increased. Reduce soot, and you’ll end up with cleaner, healthier cities—while dealing with climate change as well. That could be enough to get developing countries—which have shied away from dealing with carbon emissions, rightfully viewing it as a problem for the developed world—on board for concerted action.
Methane will likely be tougher—unlike black carbon, there’s little immediate public health benefit to capturing it and reducing emissions, though it can be burned as an energy source. (Methane is essentially natural gas.) One of the major sources of methane is from natural gas wells—especially shale wells—where methane can escape as a fugitive gas, but exactly how much escapes into the atmosphere is a matter of intense debate. Crack down on fugitive methane, and you can bet the gas industry will fight back. But that doesn’t change the fact that going after methane, black carbon and other short-lived greenhouse gases represents the best change at slowing warming right now. “It’s going to be easier for people to see and feel these changes,” said the senior Administration official. Right now any progress in the stalled climate fight would be meaningful progress.