Fast action needed now to stop a repeat of runaway warming

Posted: 17 January 2011

What insurance can the world afford to prevent repeating the catastrophic temperature increase of the past? A package of fast mitigation measures is recommended by Nobel Laureate Mario Molina and colleagues in a report issued  by the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

The scientists claim that these fast-action mitigation measures can be implemented in two to three years and produce climate benefits in one to two decades. They would complement efforts to cut CO2 under any climate treaty.

As reported in Science last week (January 14), ancient climate records show that the Earth warmed by 16°C (29°F) when concentrations of CO2 were at the levels that will be reached by 2100 under business-as-usual trends. Current emissions have warmed the planet about 0.76°C.

Meltwater
Meltwater stream flowing off the Greenland ice sheet. Photo by Roger Braithwaite, University of Manchester courtesy NASA

There are signs that climate impacts are already wreaking havoc, including torrential rains and floods and uncontrollable fires and droughts. Increased warming of 16°C would be catastrophic, and push the planet past tipping points for irreversible changes, including the melting of the polar and glacial ice, which would cause tens of metres of sea level rise.

Yet world leaders have not been able to agree to a strong climate treaty and are not likely to do so before 2012. Nor is the United States able to agree on a strong domestic climate law, the scientists say.

Phasing out HCFCs

Molina’s fast-action strategies recognize that climate change is not one problem but a package of related problems, caused by a variety of factors. CO2, for example, is causing 50 to 60 per cent of warming, while four other pollutants are causing the other 40 to 50 per cent.

“The fast-action approach recognizes the need for speed to slow climate change,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “We can start immediately,” Zaelke continued, “and cut non-CO2 pollutants using existing technologies and existing laws and institutions.”

First on Molina’s list of fast-action strategies is strengthening the Montreal Protocol, by amending the treaty to phase out the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, super greenhouse gases. These chemicals are man-made and used for refrigeration and making insulating foams. (Recyclng emissions of HFCs are included in the Kyoto Protocol.)

According to Zaelke, “Phasing out HFCs could produce 100 or more billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent in climate mitigation, at a cost between $0.10 and $0.20 per tonne.” He added, “This is the cheapest climate insurance available anywhere in the world, and delivered by an existing treaty that has already phased out nearly 100 similar chemicals.”

Carbon-negative stratagegies

Other fast-action mitigation strategies on Molina’s list include reducing black carbon soot, tropospheric ozone, known as urban smog, and methane. He says that technologies exist that can be deployed today to make these cuts. And the cuts create strong collateral benefits for public health, ecosystem protection, and agriculture productivity.

Biochar pit
Biochar pit. Photo © Jim Richardson

Molina also calls for carbon-negative strategies that can draw down existing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is a key technology for doing this, turning CO2 into biomass in forests, grasslands, and other plants. This biomass can be turned into a permanent and stable form of carbon called biochar by cooking it with limited oxygen.

Zaelke emphasized that CO2 is the priority long-term pollutant that must be cut to stabilise the climate system. “But cutting CO2 is not enough. We also need to cut the pollutants causing the other 50% of climate change,” he added.

Related links:

Kiehl, Jeffrey. Lessons from Earth’s Past. Science. 14 Jan 2011. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/158.summary

Mario Molina, Durwood Zaelke, K. Madhava Sarma, Stephen O. Andersen, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, and Donald Kaniaru. Reducing abrupt climate change risk using the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009. h
ttp://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/09/0902568106.full.pdf+html