Co-authored by Romina Picolotti, V. Ramanathan, andDurwood Zaelke
Climate change cannot be solved without leadership from heads of government, without immediate mitigation of near-term warming, and without cutting short-lived climate pollutants to complement the UN climate agreement.
1. Climate change cannot be solved by ministers alone, but requires leadership from heads of government.
By moving climate to the leader level over the past 18 months, President Obama changed the "climate" of the climate change negotiations. His effort started with his first meeting with President Xi of China in Sunnylands, California last June, where the two biggest climate polluters reached two agreements: the first to cooperate on threats from North Korea, the second to cooperate to reduce super greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. President Obama followed this up with other bilateral agreements on HFCs with President Xi and Prime Minister Modi, as well as agreements through the G7 and G20, and with the historic announcement last month on China-US climate mitigation. Success with the President's domestic climate efforts is giving him the credibility he needs not only to continue his leadership through Paris next year but also to ensure U.S. citizens that their government is working to protect them from an irreversible climate crisis. Leadership from heads of religious institutions is also important to garner public support on a massive scale. The Catholic church under Pope Francis has taken it first step when in his first homily he called for the protection of the Earth.
2. The UN climate agreement cannot move fast enough on its own to slow near-term Earth warming.
Fast action mitigation inside and outside the UN climate agreement is essential, starting immediately. Fast mitigation is needed to fill the time gap to 2020, when any new climate agreement will, by its terms, go into effect, assuming it is concluded in Paris next year. Solving a fast moving problem like climate change requires a fast moving governance system. The climate game could be lost before the anticipated UN agreement even goes into effect in 2020. Already, the Arctic sea ice is disappearing and shrinking the protective white shield that reflects heat back to space, the permafrost line is moving north and releasing stored methane and carbon dioxide, forests are dying and giving up the carbon dioxide from the biomass and soils, and ocean carbon dioxide storage is slowing down. Speed matters, and the UN climate process is not going to be able provide it on its own. Fast mitigation from all relevant venues is essential for slowing impacts and facilitating adaptation. It also provides measurable improvements that will motivate political leaders and citizens to do more.
3. The UN climate agreement cannot solve climate by itself.
Solving climate change is not just about a UN climate agreement. Complementary mitigation is needed in all possible venues, at local, national, and international levels, along with adaptation. Complementary mitigation includes using the world's best environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol, to virtually eliminate one of the six main greenhouse gases by phasing down production and use of HFCs, leaving accounting and reporting in the UN climate process. This can provide the equivalent of 100 to 200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide mitigation by 2050 and avoid up to 0.5°C of warming by end of century. Other complementary mitigation includes using national and regional laws and institutions to cut black carbon and air pollutants that produce ozone in smog, powerful climate pollutants that are not included in the UN climate discussions, but kill more than seven million people every year, including 135,000 in the U.S., and lead to over one hundred million tons of crops destruction each year. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, launched by the U.S. and a handful of allies two years ago, is helping fill the gap with actions to reduce black carbon, methane, and HFCs. Cutting these climate pollutants using existing technologies and existing laws and institutions can cut the rate of global warming in half in the near-term through mid-century, and by two-thirds in the Arctic.
Cutting the rate of warming by half is essential for adaptation, because it is always better to prevent damage than to adapt to damage. Leadership from heads of government and a plan of action for fast mitigation to complement the UN agreement can start to answer the legitimate demands of all citizens for their governments to avoid the irreversible climate crisis.
Romina Picolotti is co-founder and president of the Center for Human Rights & Environment in Argentina, former Secretary of Environment of Argentina, and recipient of Norway's Sophie Prize.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan is distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of California, San Diego, who discovered the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons in 1975.
Durwood J. Zaelke is founder and president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, and co-director of a related program at UC Santa Barbara.