Effective climate agreements: past, present and future

After seven years of work, the world’s leading climate scientists who make up the International Panel on Climate Change issued their gravest assessment yet last month.  The panel found that climate change is already having vast impacts throughout the world, which are accelerating, and will lead to even worse droughts, floods, sea level rise, extreme weather and potential famine and destabilization of people’s and countries if current trends continue.

The report cries out for fast action to sharply reduce short-lived climate pollutants that dissipate in the atmosphere quickly.  These include black carbon, methane, ground-level ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, all of which have recently been targeted for reductions by the Obama Administration. These and other climate efforts by U.S. states and the administration, along with energy efficiency investments and the switch from coal to lower emitting natural gas, have helped to reduce American emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years, despite opposition by almost all Republicans in Congress.

{mosads}Yet conservatives have a point when they note that emissions continue to rise at the global level where, after all, the climate problem ultimately must be addressed.  Burgeoning pollution from China, where annual emissions are almost double those of the US, and other major developing countries means that global emissions cannot be brought down to safer levels without international cooperation.  Thus far, the UN-sponsored climate negotiations have proven largely fruitless, leading many Americans, even some concerned about climate change, to believe effective international action is impossible.  But this view misreads history. 

In point of fact, had the Reagan administration not negotiated the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s to protect the ozone layer, the increase in global temperatures that we’ve experienced since the Industrial Revolution could be double the amount of warming now being caused by carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.  The Montreal Protocol was the world’s first great climate agreement, even if we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.

Climate scientists now calculate that fast action to cut climate pollutants is needed if nations are to have a realistic chance of keeping warming below the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit threshold to prevent runaway climate impacts.  These dire concerns are precisely why world leaders are turning to the Montreal Protocol once again, this time to phase out HFCs, super greenhouse gases used primarily as refrigerants, to achieve fast near-term reductions in warming.  In the process, they are building critical momentum that will help achieve a global agreement on other climate pollutants under the UN in Paris late next year. 

In addition to making the Montreal Protocol a top priority, President Obama has been moving climate policy to the head of state level, negotiating bilateral agreements with President Xi Jinping of China to phase down HFCs.  Obama reached similar agreements with the G-20 heads of state last year, and with the leaders of the EU last month, to use the Montreal to phase down the production of HFCs, while leaving accounting and reporting of emissions in the UN climate agreement.

Obama and Indian Prime Minister Singh also reached an agreement on the issue last year, although India has continued to raise concerns, including about the availability of substitutes for HFCs. When these concerns are addressed, phasing out HFCs will provide the biggest, fastest, and most reliable climate mitigation available in the near-term.  It will avoid the equivalent of 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 (or the equivalent of nearly three years of global carbon dioxide emissions), preventing up to 0.9 Fahrenheit of warming by 2100, a major contribution to staying within the 3.6 degree guardrail. The cost will be less than a dollar per equivalent ton of carbon dioxide, making it a remarkable bargain.

Recent science has found that reducing HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and methane can cut the rate of climate change in half quickly for the next several decades. Reducing carbon dioxide is also essential, however, for long-term climate protection, as carbon reductions produce their climate benefits on a longer time scale. The bottom line is that both carbon dioxide and the short-lived climate pollutants must be tackled now for effective protection.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognizes the importance of moving climate policy to the leader level and is calling for heads of state to meet in September in New York to discuss climate solutions.   Such a meeting needs specific goals—including an agreement to start negotiations on the HFC phasedown this year, and to conclude them next year well in advance of the climate negotiations in Paris.   President Obama and French President Hollande should take the lead, following Obama’s architecture of using existing laws and international agreements and other venues to reduce both HFCs, other short-lived climate pollutants and carbon dioxide.

Success using the Montreal Protocol and other institutions to reduce short lived climate pollutants will renew the world’s confidence that fast progress on climate change is possible, and build political momentum to succeed with a strong climate agreement in Paris in 2015.  Otherwise, the IPCC’s dire predictions may become reality, and current political leaders will become infamous for generations to come.

Zaelke is founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C. and Geneva. Bledsoe is senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


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