Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!
By Alan Miller, Durwood Zaelke, and Stephen O. Andersen authors of
Three experts collectively bring over a century of experience to addressing ozone depletion and climate change
Global citizens have at most ten years, and probably less, to radically slow global warming or face an existential threat to the planet Earth. This threat is being propelled by self-reinforcing feedback loops in the climate system that risk pushing the planet past irreversible and catastrophic tipping points. Climate tipping points are thresholds beyond which the climate changes in dramatic and possibly irreversible. For example, if the Greenland ice sheet were to pass a tipping point and disintegrate, a new ice age would be required to bring it back. Because of slow pace of climate mitigation under the Paris Climate Agreement we’ve already moved from the goal of keeping the planet safe, to “saving what we can” by cutting super climate pollutants and doubling down on adaptation and resilience.
This is the bad news.
The good news is that there is still a lot we can do to save what we can of our planet by accelerating strategies that slow warming the most in the near-term, starting with strategies that cut short-lived climate pollutants—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used primarily as refrigerants and foam-blowing agents, black carbon (often called “soot”), methane (the primary component of natural gas), and tropospheric ozone (the bad kind of ozone at ground level, compared to the good ozone in the stratosphere that protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation). The short atmospheric lifetime of these “super pollutants” means that when we stop emitting them, they will fall out of the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide (CO2), and 90% of the warming they are causing will stop within a decade. For comparison, somewhere between 25 and 40% of CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 500 years or more causing warming. Our plan for avoiding the most warming in the shortest amount of time is to cut the super pollutants as quickly as possible, while also protecting the forests and other natural “sinks” that draw down and store CO2.
Our plan to address climate change and avoid dangerous feedbacks and tipping points has three elements:
First, it is essential to cut CO2 from burning fossil fuels and from destroying our forests and other natural sinks, while also reducing the demand for energy through improvements in efficiency as we shift to clean energy.
Second, we need to cut the super climate pollutants.
Third, we need to learn how to efficiently remove a significant amount of the CO2 we’ve already emitted by the end of the century, starting with photosynthesis but also through other innovative, yet to be fully developed technologies.
People are most familiar with the first strategy, reducing CO2 pollution—the single largest part of the blanket that is warming the planet, causing about 55 to 60% of the warming. It’s essential to reduce emissions of CO2 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, as many nations have proposed. However, doing so is not sufficient alone to keep the planet safe. Cutting fossil fuel emissions does not thin the atmospheric blanket quickly enough to help us during the 10 years or less that we have to slow the self-reinforcing feedback loops and avoid the dangerous tipping points. This is because cutting fossil fuel emissions also reduces cooling sulfate pollutants that are emitted along with the CO2. The sulfate pollutants are reflective particles that cool the atmosphere. Reducing them “unmasks” warming that the sulfates are currently canceling, or masking. The only way to avoid significant warming in the next couple of decades is to cut the super pollutants at the same time we reduce CO2 from fossil fuels. Cutting the super pollutants will avoid three times as much warming by 2050 as cutting CO2 alone.
How can we do this? One strategy that’s already proving to be successful is cutting HFCs as mandated by the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol) and implemented in the United States through bipartisan legislation enacted in 2020. This extraordinary treaty not only has solved the first great threat to the global atmosphere—the threat to the protective stratospheric ozone layer—it also has done more than any other treaty to slow climate change, avoiding warming that otherwise would have equaled or exceeded the warming CO2 is causing today.
The good news is that humanity has the knowledge and resources to avoid, or at least dramatically reduce, this existential risk. There are many immediate measures we can work on that will provide fast benefits. While there is much the US and other large economies can do on their own, ultimately all nations must act collectively, and they must act quickly as the time for action is running out. President Joe Biden has made this clear in his first days in office, and his Presidential Climate Envoy, John Kerry has spent much of his career promoting global action to solve global problems, including as a key negotiator of the Kigali Amendment to phase down the HFC super pollutants.
There is no single control strategy for halting emissions of the four super climate pollutants because they cut across many sectors, including buildings, transportation, agriculture, and energy. Nor is there an existing single global agreement that tackles all super climate pollutants. However, there is a significant successful precedent for how to bring about many of the control measures necessary. The Montreal Protocol relied on a “sectoral approach” in which solutions were developed for specific applications of ozone depleting substances – air conditioning, insulating foams, solvents, etc. Industry experts were included in the identification and acceptance of solutions such that not to comply would be a competitive disadvantage. This and other features of the Montreal Protocol described in the book offer a model for a similar approach to climate change.
A key part of the Montreal Protocol story was the successful inclusion of industry experts, a process that owes much to the creation of a panel called the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel, or “TEAP”. Little known outside the community of diplomats, public officials, businesspeople, and environmentalists who participate in the activities of the Montreal Protocol, the TEAP, co-chaired by one of the authors, Stephen O. Andersen, is a model for driving the business innovations needed to address climate change. The success of the process illustrates that solution-minded experts exist within industry including automobile and telecommunication companies and can obtain the support of their corporate management.
Finally, we make specific recommendations including:
- an international methane agreement;
- regional agreements for black carbon and tropospheric ozone;
- accelerating action in existing multilateral agreements;
- energizing initiatives at international, national, and sub-national levels that are already helping reduce the super climate pollutants
- accelerating existing policies and programs to reduce the four super climate pollutants, and educating individuals on how they can take to reduce the super climate pollutants
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