LIMA, PERU - Reflecting on the relatively weak climate text acceded to by 196 nations here Sunday, which in fairness is intended merely to set the stage for a broader agreement in Paris next December, one is reminded of the familiar tableau at the beginning of a marathon, where hundreds of runners line up to start, but the fastest are placed at the front.  The emerging UN climate pact will be like that.  Everyone has to take some action to address climate change, but the richest countries and largest emitters of greenhouse gases have to do it much faster.

This inclusive approach is off to a good start.  The world’s three biggest emitters— the US, EU, and China, which together account for over half of global emissions--have all made major commitments.  Without continuing action by them, and by both developed and developing nations, whose annual emissions are about to pass those in the ‘West’, the race cannot be won. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Now pressure is building on many other major nations—from richer countries like Canada and Australia to emerging economies like Mexico and Brazil to larger developing countries like Indonesia and India—to begin serious efforts to cut or slow their emissions. Many others must take action both to address emissions and maintain political momentum, and strenuous effort and financing, will be needed to help the poorest adapt to inevitable climate impacts.

At the same time, all parties must recognize that no single negotiation, agreement, or announcement will be even close to sufficient to address the problem, and specifically to limit warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the level above which scientists say the climate could become disastrously unstable. Instead, multiple venues of action and constant iteration of goals, national commitments, technology innovation, market and regulatory policies, science, monitoring, and other efforts will be needed for decades to effectively protect the climate.  A Paris agreement is necessary, but not sufficient, and climate action is a marathon that must take place on a number courses, not just on the UN track.

Fortunately, other venues have proven records of delivering results.  The Montreal Protocol, originally intended to address chemicals destroying the ozone layer, has not only met that challenge but has turned into the world’s most effective climate treaty, already mitigating 5 to 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions the Kyoto Accord has.  It is now poised to phase down hydrofloroucarbons (HFCs), chemicals used in refrigeration that are 1300 times more powerful as a warming agent than CO2. This action, supported by over 100 nations, from small island states to the US, China, and India, will double the climate contribution the Montreal Protocol has already made by 2050 and reduce warming by .8 degrees Fahrenheit over expected levels. Most importantly, HFCs dissipate in the atmosphere fairly rapidly, because unlike CO2, so reductions bring more near term benefits. 

This is the sprinting part of the race.  Nations should urge approval of an HFC phase down next year, ahead of the Paris UN meetings.  Efforts must also be made to address other ‘short-lived climate forcers’ like methane, and black carbon soot.  Reducing both of these air pollutants can cut the rate of warming in half and do so quickly, helping forestall the 3.6 degree threshold.  Such rapid action can bring huge economic benefits, avoiding costlier action later, as studies headed by Sir Nicolas Stern, former US Treasury Sec. Hank Paulson and others have found. 

Major international development banks also have a key role to play in the transition to lower emissions growth.  Greater incentives for clean energy deployment, especially in the developing world, are critical, especially distributed generation electricity in India and other countries with large rural populations.  In addition, clean energy breakthroughs to catalyze potentially game-changing technologies, like the development of large scale electricity storage, are urgently needed.  Key nations, particularly the US and many in the EU, with long histories of technology transformation must increase these investments for a truly technology revolution.

Even should most of these factors turn out well, however, worldwide emissions will likely still be on a path for years to increase global average temperatures more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels.  This is precisely why constant iteration, monitoring, and adjustment of goals will be needed.  Most importantly, we must fiercely resist calls by both far left and far right to abandon meaningful, if imperfect, interim agreements which do not meet ultimate emissions targets right away.  This is a defeatist approach, analogous to quitting a race simply because you are not setting a record pace.

No single accord, no matter how ambitious, will ‘solve’ the climate challenge.  Even an ambitious Paris agreement next year, while crucial, must be updated regularly.  But if done right, future generations may look back on these actions as the start of truly effective climate action, when the world finally began running in the same direction, together.

Bledsoe is a senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  He was communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.