Clearing the Air at Cancun Climate Summit

As COP-16 begins in Cancun, Mexico, world leaders need to understand that global warming isn’t only about carbon dioxide. In a world that is stepping close to a steep and dangerous precipice, doing more to reduce non-CO2 climate change contributors such as methane, black carbon soot, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) might help head global warming off at the pass, according to Professors Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and David G. Victor at the University of California, San Diego.

In a commentary in The New York Times, the authors argue that adopting a new perspective could transform the debate at a United Nations climate change conference even though it’s beginning with exceedingly low expectations. Most analysts believe that little of substance will be forthcoming because current negotiating positions among the big players — the U.S., Europe, India and China —  are moving further apart.

But climate scientists and policy analysts like Ramanathan and Victor are offering a way to solve the diplomatic impasse.

“The opportunity to make progress arises from the fact that global warming is caused by two separate types of pollution,”  write Ramanathan and Victor. “One is the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for centuries. Diplomacy has understandably focused on this problem because, without deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, there can be no permanent solution to warming.

“The carbon dioxide problem is hard to fix, however, because it comes mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, which is so essential to modern life and commerce. It will take decades and trillions of dollars to convert all the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy systems to cleaner systems like nuclear, solar and wind power. In the meantime, a fast-action plan is needed.”

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

Similarly, black carbon is a huge pollution problem in the developing world — and it has been responsible for about 50 percent of the warming we’ve seen in the Arctic. The good news is it can be reduced sharply and simply by providing relatively inexpensive solar-power stoves and diesel particulate engine filters to people living in the world’s poorest regions. Even better, such a step wouldn’t not only slow global warming; it will also greatly improve the local air quality and health of people living in cities and countries where poverty is rife. More than 1.9 million deaths are attributed to black soot every year.

Methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times as potent as CO2, commonly enters the atmosphere as emissions from coal mines, livestock waste, landfills, and rice paddies. By implementing a few simple changes, it’s possible to cut methane emissions by more than 40 percent. It would start with replacing corroded natural gas pipelines, implementing better cultivation techniques for rice, and collecting waste methane from landfills and using it to generate energy, among other things.

None of these individual solutions will stop global warming, but they would buy us a few decades so that we can get our act together. Deploying clean technologies like wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal will take time, and it will take money.

Since our leaders can’t agree on the big issues, perhaps focusing on smaller steps, with a much quicker payoff, will create the goodwill now that will allow for a comprehensive climate treaty in the future.

We need to get politicians to change their minds because we can’t change the laws of physics.

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.

2 responses

  1. Combined with the announcement yesterday from the Consumer Goods Forum’s Sustainable Refrigeration Summit held in Chicago last month, the signs are indeed promising that we may see Cancun direct the Montreal Protocol to address HFCs. This would be a long overdue evolution of the Montreal mandate that will reflect the huge, though inadvertent, contribution it has already made towards climate protection, by phasing down CFCs, which are enormously powerful greenhouse gases.

    In the early 1990’s the Montreal Protocol policymakers made the enormous mistake of not listening to environmental advocates, in particular Greenpeace International, who now stand thoroughly vindicated by the current push to move the world beyond HFCs. The fact that atmospheric concentration of HFCs are growing at 8% p.a. (and 10% for HFC134a – check your fridge and car AC labels!) is entirely due to the influence of the fluorochemical lobby in out-lobbying those we should have listened to.

    These very same fluorolobbyists are now trying to foist upon the world a new “low GWP” patented HFC called R-1234yf (and a number of blends in development that will dilute the high GWP HFCs to a “moderate” GWP level), and there is every sign that the policy makers at the Montreal Protocol are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past, by once again turning a deaf ear to advocates of natural refrigerants.

    Please let us not be fooled again into using “the world’s most successful environmental treaty” to further increase the fortunes of fluorolobby – who have not paid a cent for the damage inflicted on the climate by their products.

    Natural refrigerants – air, ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and water – the “friendly five” – are well understood by the world’s leading expert refrigeration and air conditioning engineering to be perfectly capable of meeting our cooling needs. Genuinely climate friendly refrigerant solutions must not once again be displaced by patented, highly toxic (when burnt), and expensive F-gases, that have been invented solely to protect the profit margins of their promoters.

    When Denmark moved in 1996 to ban HFCs within 10 years, howls of protest were heard that the “butter would melt and the beer would be warm”. After 15 years of HFC taxes and regulation, the butter is still hard and their beer is still cold – and Denmark is now among the world leaders in the delivery of natural refrigerant solutions. It is now time for the rest of us to follow their example.

  2. Reducing methane or soot emissions may be a good idea, but it is wrong to characterize this as “buying time” do do the hard stuff on CO2. It does not, because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and continues to affect the climate for millennia after emissions cease. Thus, all the CO2 we emit while “buying time” doing something with methane will be, on a human time scale, committing us to essentially irreversible climate change. That’s not buying time, that’s losing time. In contrast, there is less harm in deferring action on methane emissions, because the methane warming effect will essentially disappear within a decade of action being taken.

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