Research and development of breakthrough technologies like electricity storage that can enable the use of renewables for base load energy should also be a top priority. But we must face the fact that moving the global economy beyond primary reliance on coal and oil is a goal that will take decades to achieve. In the meantime, dirty energy will continue to power much of the world economy, although re-use and sequestration of carbon dioxide may offer some near-term promise. But it is unlikely the world will see much direct climate benefit from these carbon dioxide strategies in the near-term, although they are vital and must be pursued immediately.
For near-term climate protection, the presidents have the opportunity to join forces to lead the world in the reductions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other short-lived climate pollutants. In addition to HFCs, the short-lived climate pollutants include methane (the primary component of natural gas), lower-level ozone, which also damages health and crops, and black carbon soot, which kills six million people a year, mostly in developing countries, as well as being one of the most potent climate pollutants.
The four short-lived pollutants are naturally cleared out of the atmosphere in days to a decade or so, compared to carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, a major part of which remains in the atmosphere and causes warming for thousands of years. The latest scientific research tell us that reducing the short-lived climate pollutants can avoid six times more warming by 2050 as reductions of carbon dioxide, and a bit more than carbon dioxide by 2100.
HFCs, chemicals used as coolants and to make insulating foams, are an ideal initial target. They are the fastest growing climate pollutant in both the US and China, and in many other countries. Reducing them can provide the single biggest, fastest, most reliable, and cheapest piece of climate protection available to the world today.
How big? Phasing down HFC will prevent the equivalent of 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, providing about ten times more climate protection than the UN climate treaty has provided so far. This will avoid a half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century, a significant part of what is needed to keep warming from exceeding the two degree Celsius red-line.
How reliable? The Montreal Protocol has already phased out nearly 100 chemicals similar to HFCs by nearly 100%, as measured in the atmosphere. It has never failed to do its assigned job. How cheap? It will cost an estimated ten cents for the equivalent of a ton of carbon dioxide.
Many countries, including the US, Mexico, Canada, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Kingdome of Morocco, and dozens of others, are already calling for the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, which are known as super greenhouse gases because the warming they cause is a thousand or more times greater than carbon dioxide on a molecule for molecule basis.
The Montreal Protocol is acknowledged as the world’s most effective environmental treaty, as well as the most effective climate treaty. Every country is a Party, and every country undertakes mandatory measures to phase out the damaging gases controlled by the treaty, making it an important model to expand and to emulate. The developed countries are always required to go first and perfect the climate-safe substitutes, followed by a grace period before developing countries must undertake their own reductions. This and a dedicated fund ensure that developing countries are treated equitably.
With more than 100 countries already showing support for reducing HFCs, President Obama and President Xi could together lead the world to a much needed climate victory by joining forces to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. Such a victory would help build the sense of urgent optimism needed for further cooperation on climate protection.
Zaelke is founder and president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington and Geneva. Bledsoe is senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and was Communications Director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.