Post and Courier
October 31, 2014

Stopgap remedy for climate change

Posted: 12/06/2013 12:01 a.m.

The latest annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ended in disappointment last month in Warsaw. Like its predecessors, it was deadlocked by disagreements over which nations should sacrifice economic growth by sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Developing nations, led by China, demanded that rich nations hand over $70 billion a year by 2016 to compensate poor nations for the effects of climate change. Supposedly that includes natural disasters like the typhoon that hit the Philippines.

Most disappointingly, the conference failed to take steps that could have a rapid impact on global warming at a moderate cost, with added public health benefits, by accelerating efforts to remove short-lived climate pollutants like soot and methane from the atmosphere.

Finding solutions to climate change is a global issue, but it should also be of intense concern to South Carolina, particularly in communities along the coast. As sea levels rise, South Carolina will be on the front line of states dealing directly with the consequences. Global warming should have the attention of the state’s congressmen, who are in a position to respond at the policy level.

New studies presented at the Warsaw conference show that sharply reducing short-lived climate pollutants would at least slow the melting of glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic ice, and prevent rapid sea rise. And it could reduce deaths from air pollution by up to six million a year.

The studies, by the World Bank and the United Nations Environmental Program, suggest that a global campaign to sharply reduce these climate pollutants over the next 15 years could be carried out with existing technology at moderate cost, offering a workable strategy to reduce predicted rising global temperatures by mid-century. In contrast, a major obstacle to reducing the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is the relative difficulty and high cost of providing adequate sources of carbon-free energy.

As an added benefit, a focus on curbing short-lived pollutants would improve crop yields, according to these studies.

A recently leaked draft of a pending report by the International Panel on Climate Change says that global warming, if unchecked, will reduce crop yields, as well as increase flooding and sea level rise.

The studies maintain that slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide remains a necessary long-term strategy for reducing global warming. But because of the persistence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere such measures may take a century to have any measurable effect.

The new studies demonstrate that short-lived climate pollutants are the low-hanging fruit of the climate change problem. Reducing them has prompt benefits.

Up until now the focus of the U.N. effort to abate global warming has been on the developed nations that emit the most greenhouse gases. But developed nations, with their advanced pollution controls, are responsible for less than 25 percent of global soot emissions. Real problems also exist in Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America that lack comprehensive air quality standards.

If it wants to have a real and immediate impact on global warming, the U.N. climate group should aim for an agreement among its 192 members to implement binding global air quality standards over the next 15 years, beginning with a focus on sharply reducing short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane gas.