Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with climate change (more) effectively

The United Nations Climate Summit on September 23 was an important step in dealing with climate change. With more than 120 world leaders in attendance, it may yet prove to have been a major step or even a turning point in the long process of dealing with climate change.

The attendance at this summit alone is a significant step in the international community's recognition of the problem. Many countries have for too long denied human-driven climate change and have thus refused to acknowledge its urgency.

Even before the summit began people in cities all over the world marched and called upon the leaders of the world's governments and businesses to take immediate action. In New York City an estimated 300,000 took to the streets. This is the largest crowd ever demanding action and a marked change in the world's attitude to this enormous environmental concern.

This summit was called by the Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the UN. In his opening remarks he said, "Today we must set the world on a new course. Climate change is the defining issue of our age. It is defining our present. Our response will define our future."

According to Ban, part of that response should be a reduction in carbon emissions in order to limit global temperature rises to under two degrees Celsius as many nations have already agreed to. But that goal set in 2009 is unlikely to be met within the next thirty years.

The Secretary-General called upon the world leaders to make "bold pledges" ahead of the next UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015. The goal of that conference is a binding and universal agreement on climate change that would involve all the nations of the world.

This summit is the first top-level world gathering on climate change since the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, which was widely seen to have been a failure. Paris must not be allowed to meet the same fate as Copenhagen.

Ban called for the world community to donate 100 billion dollars a year for a global fund to fight climate change. France has joined Germany in pledging a billion dollars, but much more is needed.

The European Union has promised to provide an additional 3 billion euros to help developing nations as well as making commitments to cut greenhouse gases and to use more renewable energy.

President Obama in his UN address said, "The United States has made ambitious investments in clean energy and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions. Today I call on all countries to join us, not next year or the year after that, but right now. Because no nation can meet this global threat alone."

But Obama did not mention that the US has been unable to meet its previous commitments to cut carbon emissions. Last year the world's three biggest carbon polluting nations -- China, the US and India -- all saw their emissions jump.  Indian emissions grew by 5.1%, Chinese emissions by 4.2% and the U.S. emissions by 2.9%.

The leaders of India and China were conspicuous by their absence at the summit, Both countries have already indicated that they want the world to treat developing nations, such as them, differently than developed nations by allowing them to release more heat-trapping pollution, although China's claim to be considered a developing country is dubious.

Prime Minister Harper of Canada was also absent, although he turned up for the dinner afterwards. His main objection to climate change agreements, as he has stated on several occasions, is that they should not cost jobs. Yet he claims that his government has already harmonized auto emissions and will introduce measures to further decrease fuel consumption. 

In Canada, Harper has been criticized severely for his government's lack of action on climate change. It is doing little to regulate the oil and gas sector, which is the greatest emitter of industrial pollution.

The statements of the US, China, India and Canada reveal a lot lot of political posturing. In spite of Obama's urging the nations of the world to work together on climate change, there does not seem to be the political will on the part of many leaders to deal effectively with this problem.

These statements are largely words unless meaningful emission-reduction policies are implemented by all governments. A few have been already, but more are needed or expanded.

Other nations are little different. Even sizable donations to the global fund to fight climate change are not enough, although they are certainly welcome. More than rhetoric or even money is needed. There needs to a willingness on the part of governments, businesses, and ordinary people everywhere to tackle the problem.

Ordinary people seem to have woken up. The marches all over the world, but especially in NYC, are an indication of that. Businesses too seem to be increasingly aware that climate change is going to hurt their bottom line, unless they do something about it.

A few governments have finally woken up as well, but most are still asleep, if their lackluster record thus far is any indication. Many are not yet willing to the necessary measures often for political reasons and not just because of the enormous costs involved.

The Economist suggest one avenue to reduce greenhouse gases that can be done quickly and effectively: expand the Montreal protocol. In 1987 governments negotiated an agreement to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a set of chemicals used in refrigeration, that would after decomposition would release chlorine into the stratosphere and break down the ozone layer.

The Montreal protocol reduced CFCs by the equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, as compared with doing nothing, making it by far the world’s most effective action to tackle climate change (see chart above).
At the Paris conference in 2015 governments should agree to expand the protocol to cover a class of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that do not harm the ozone layer but do act as greenhouse gases. They are among the fastest-growing of such gases. 

Amending the protocol to cover them could reduce greenhouse gases by the equivalent of another 130 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, or roughly 4 billion tonnes a year. It would reduce these gases more than any other single climate-change action.

The Economist concludes that expanding the Montreal protocol would not, by itself, keep the rise in global temperatures within safe bounds. A broad carbon treaty will still be necessary. But expanding the protocol would get more than a tenth of the way towards what is needed. More important, it can be agreed to, and implemented, quickly.

People everywhere should urge their governments agree to amend the Montreal protocol in 2015. Many other measures will still be needed, but this one measure will accomplish more than anything else. Thus we need to press for it.

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