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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today will announce a $15 million, six-country coalition dedicated to curbing non-carbon dioxide pollutants that cause global warming.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, made up of the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and Sweden and led by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), will target so-called short-lived "climate forcers." Those substances -- methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- remain in the atmosphere only days or weeks, unlike carbon dioxide, which lasts generations.
But curbing those substances, scientists and activists say, could slow atmospheric warming 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 while also increasing crop yields and preventing hundreds of thousands of related deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
"Those have outsized global warming effects and also outsized human health effects," said John Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress. Calling today's coalition "a significant announcement," Podesta said "there's a considerable win-win" in addressing short-term climate drivers.
The voluntary coalition also has the potential to jolt the lethargic international climate change negotiations process, which is primarily focused on emissions from carbon dioxide.
While diplomats at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) duly churn out decisions each year, the agreements increasingly are hailed for saving the U.N. process, not the planet. Even a potentially groundbreaking decision reached in Durban, South Africa, in December to begin negotiating a new global agreement that could see all major emitters cutting carbon won't take effect until 2020. Scientists and activists warn this decade can't just be one of waiting.
A need for prompt action
"We need something that has fast action to complement the deliberate pace of the U.N. process," said Durwood Zaelke, the president and founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. "The non-C02 is ready to rock and roll today."
The research on short-lived climate forcers goes back more than a decade, but scientists say the issue has only just started to pick up political momentum. Last year, UNEP released a major study finding that policies designed to curb these pollutants could end up being cheaper than the older technologies they replace.
"Some of the measures pay for themselves over a lifetime," said Johan Kuylenstierna, director of the York Center at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a lead author of several major studies on the issue.
Indeed, he and others said, a number of solutions cost little money and involve already existing technologies or air pollution laws. They range from substituting dirty cookstoves with ones that use modern and clean fuels -- something the State Department already is working on -- to mandating diesel particle filters for vehicles.
"We don't need to wait for technological advancement, just political will," Kuylenstierna said.
In some ways, attacking short-lived pollutants promises to be less politically fraught than the debate over CO2 emissions. Black carbon, or soot, is one issue that brought together political rivals like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Clinton when she was serving as the Democratic senator from New York. Yet it's hardly without controversies.
India and China in opposition
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for about 18 percent of global climate change emissions. Shale gas development is expected to be the biggest new growing source of methane, but various analyses of the impact have been hotly disputed by the natural gas industry.
Black carbon has become a sensitive topic in the international climate debate. Many Western countries have pushed for its inclusion in the list of greenhouse gases under the UNFCCC, something that India has rejected on both scientific and political grounds. India and some other countries fear the focus on black carbon could ease the pressure on industrialized countries to cut the main culprit for climate change, carbon dioxide.