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Tackling Climate Change Requires Looking Beyond Carbon

A new international coalition will work to get countries on board with simple and inexpensive climate fixes that could have an outsized impact.

The best way to reverse climate change over the long term is to start sending less carbon into the atmosphere, but he international community is failing miserably at reaching that goal. So researchers have begun pointing to another way to start addressing climate change in the short term: Forget about carbon and focus a little bit of attention on greenhouse gases like methane and soot.

Gases like these don’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does, but they still contribute mightily to climate change—between 30 and 40 percent of human-induced warming, researchers say. Keeping those gases out of the atmosphere won’t stop climate change, but it could slow the process by as much as half a degrees Celsius. When an increase in average global temperatures of just 2 degrees Celsius comes with serious consequences, that incremental change can make a big difference.

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and a handful of international dignitaries, announced a new international coalition to focus on reducing these “short-lived climate pollutants.” With funding from countries like the United States, Canada, and Sweden, the coalition will work to bring countries on board with relatively simple and inexpensive fixes that could have an outsized impact. Secretary Clinton acknowledged that this effort can only complement, not replace, work to reduce carbon. But aiming for shorter-term impacts has advantages, she emphasized, saying "We can have local and regional effects that people can see and feel."

One of the most compelling arguments for scaling down methane and soot is that such efforts will not only improve the planet’s prospects but also people’s health. Scaling back soot means switching out dirty kerosene-fueled cookstoves for cleaner models, outlawing the burning of agricultural waste, and cleaning up tailpipe emissions from cars. These aren’t wild ideas with unknown consequences. They’re solutions that have been successful elsewhere and need only to be implemented more widely.

Scaling back other short-lived pollutants, like methane and hydrofluorocarbons (the refrigerants that replaced ozone-killing gases), is more technically demanding, but does not require any dramatic innovations. The coalition will ask countries to consider actions like capturing landfill gas, improving wastewater systems, and keeping methane from leaking out of coal, oil, and gas projects. Some companies are already implementing these measures because they save energy and money. The substantial climate benefit is almost incidental.

There isn’t yet much money behind this effort, and Secretary Clinton framed the project in startup mode, trying to roll up supporters and financial backers. There’s so rarely good news in the realm of international climate politics, though, that this announcement feels like a strong step in the right direction. The State Department is not going to solve climate change, but it’s doing what it can. And that’s more than can be said for almost any other American effort to address climate change, well, ever.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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