Buying Time: Cutting Non-CO2 Pollutants Will Slow Climate Change


Climate change isn’t only about carbon dioxide. So that’s why, in a world that is stepping close to a steep precipice, doing more to reduce non-CO2 climate change contributors such as black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), as well as expanding bio-sequestration through biochar production, might  head global warming off at the pass, according to Nobel Laureate Dr. Mario Molina and co-authors in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors argue that this novel perspective could transform the debate at United Nations climate change conference slated for Copenhagen in December.

“Cutting HFCs, black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and methane can buy us about 40 years before we approach the dangerous threshold of 2° Celsius warming,” said co-author Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a Distinguished Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“By targeting these short-term climate forcers, we can make a down payment on climate and provide momentum going into the December negotiations in Copenhagen,” said co-author Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “The Obama Administration and other key governments need to take up the fast-action climate agenda before it is too late.”

Dr. Molina suggests that HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas that was developed to replace ozone-depleting CFCs, are already covered by existing treaties and the Montreal Protocol, and those treaties could be could be leveraged to cut HFC emissions dramatically.

Similarly, black carbon, otherwise known as soot, is a huge pollution problem in the developing world that has been directly been responsible for almost 50 percent of the warming we’ve seen in the Arctic. The good news is it can be reduced quickly by providing relatively inexpensive solar cookers and diesel particulate filters to people living in the world’s poorest regions. Even better, such a step would not only slow global warming, it will also greatly improve air quality and, by extension, the health of people living in cities and countries where poverty and pollution is rife.

The study’s authors also support serious investment in biochar to turn back the hands on the climate clock. Biochar is a fine-grained charcoal product — produced by burning biomass at low temperatures in low-oxygen conditions — that is plowed into soil to serve as a natural fertilizer. “The other fast-action strategies can quickly mitigate emissions,” said Zaelke, “but to back away from the cliff of abrupt climate change, we need biochar.”

Richard is a writer and editor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia who specializes in clean technology and climate change. He's the founder of One Blue Marble, a climate change activism blog and web site.