If the years of devastating droughts, floods, heatwaves and forest fires since the adoption of the Paris climate agreement have taught us anything, it’s that we have underestimated the pace of the extreme and destabilizing climate change.
The world has warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, much of it since 1950, and the pace continues. This is why it was so important for more than 100 countries to join a US-EU-led coalition last week to reduce global emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane by at least 30% d ‘by 2030.
But delegates gathered at a global climate conference in Glasgow have more to do: For the safety of the planet, they must act more and faster to limit temperature rises in the short term.
For starters, more countries need to join the methane pact, including China, Russia and India, the world’s three largest emitters of methane, and Iran, the ninth. (The United States, which unveiled its own aggressive methane plan last week, is fourth, followed by Brazil, which signed the deal.) That, of course, sums up the challenge of climate change: Borders don’t cannot protect against global warming, so every country must join the fight, especially the big polluters.
For those who have joined the methane pact, their commitment must translate into concrete action, not words, if we are to slow warming before the consequences become catastrophic. This is part of an essential mitigation strategy, along with the rapid phase-out of charcoal and the protection of forests, to slow climate change.
The other element of this strategy is to reduce emissions of the most pernicious climate pollutants, those which, along with methane, amplify short-term warming. Unless there is climate geoengineering, this is the fastest way to slow global warming.
These superpollutants, as we call them, have the potential to disrupt critical natural systems, accelerating the melting of sea ice and reflective Arctic ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland and the thawing of permafrost in boreal regions of the world. This thaw will be disastrous for the climate if it ends up releasing the large amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases into the frozen ground.
The climate and the world are changing. What will be the challenges of the future and how to respond?
We know from measurements of air trapped in Antarctic ice that the amount of methane in the air has reached its highest level in at least 800,000 years. And because methane emissions can be more than 80 times more potent for global warming over 20 years than carbon dioxide, methane reductions have a special role to play in limiting short-term temperature increases. Two other short-lived climate pollutants are also particularly potent: hydrofluorocarbons, mainly used in refrigeration and air conditioning, and black carbon soot, caused by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, wood and organic waste, such as garden and farm waste.
Reductions in these pollutants are possible with existing technology and could further limit temperature increases over the next two decades, avoid three times more warming by 2050 than strategies targeting carbon dioxide alone.
We are making progress, but not fast enough.
In 2016, 197 countries agreed to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons by more than 80% over the next 30 years, with the potential to prevent warming of nearly half a degree Celsius by the end of the year. century. These countries need to accelerate this timeline and provide additional financial support to help some low-income countries comply.
In California, clean air rules have reduced carbon emissions from black soot by 90% since the 1960s. This can be replicated elsewhere. In particular, the world needs to focus on black carbon emissions from oil and gas production in the Arctic. These particles darken snow and ice, reducing the reflection of solar radiation in a region that is warming three times faster than the global rate, with the potential to influence global weather patterns. Reducing these emissions should be a global priority.
In short, we need a combined global strategy of drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions while reducing emissions of methane and these other superpollutants. Otherwise, we will fail to limit short-term temperature increases and the potential for uncontrollable warming. It should be a total effort on the part of all countries.
Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. Durwood Zaelke is co-author of the book “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now” and president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, of which Gabrielle Dreyfus is the chief scientist.