Introduction to Short-Lived Pollutants

Even with two major treaties coming out of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, international attention to Global Warming has been dropping in recent years.  It is nearly impossible to come up with a global consensus on how best to approach the problem.  A common theory is the North/South divide where Southern, developing countries want a sectoral commitment to mitigation based on how much has historically been emitted by each country.  The Northern, developed countries refuse to commit to any legally binding document of mitigation that does not include the developing countries-who are going to be the major emitters in the next two-three decades.  Much of these arguments center around .  It is the main human cause of warming and lingers in the atmosphere for a century or longer.  Carbon dioxide is not, however, the only warming pollutant.

At least 40% of current global warming is due to short lived pollutants: dark soot particles called black carbon, methane, lower atmospheric ozone, and industrial gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofuorocarbons (HFCs).  According to Earth Justice, Black Carbon comes from diesel engines, industrial smokestacks and residential cooking and heating stoves.  Black Carbon air pollution is also a leading cause of respiratory illness and death.  Simple improvements to cooking in developing countries and controlling emissions can improve health around the world: in India alone, black carbon-laden indoor smoke is responsible for over 400,000 premature deaths a year.  Globally, the inhalation of soot produced by cooking indoors kills roughly 2 million people a year.  The US Energy Protection Agency explains that methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock.  Both CFCs and HFCs are fluorinated gases and have no natural sources-they come only from human related activities.  They are emitted through a variety of industrial processes such as aluminum and semiconductor manufacturing, as well as coolants in refrigerators.

What separates these pollutants from carbon dioxide is that they have life spans of just a few weeks to a decade.  Additionally, they are extremely potent pollutants.  According to Professors David Victor, Charles Kennel and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, emitting just one ton of black carbon has the same effect on global warming as emitting 500-2,000 tons of carbon dioxide.  The main benefit of focusing technological, political and social energy on reducing short lived pollutants is that they can have an immediate effect.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol has been the most successful treaty in recent history due its focus on pollutants that had little effect on national economic competitiveness.  It banned CFCs and many other ozone depleters.  Unfortunately, HFCs and some other gases were used to replace CFCs and are also warming agents, however, Victor, Kennel and Ramanathan cite studies that show that the “reduction of CFC emissions since the late 1980s has done more to reduce global warming than all the climate treaties focused on carbon dioxide to date.”

Earlier this month at the G20 in Russia, all countries agreed to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.  In a statement produced by the G20,

“Climate change will continue to have a significant impact on the world economy, and cost will be higher to the extent we delay additional actions.”

According to UNEP, taking quick action on HFCs and other non carbon dioxide pollutants can cut the rate of global warming by up to 0.5 degrees Celsius (which would significantly help reach the goal of not moving beyond a 2 degree Celsius warming), reduce crop losses by over 30 million tons a year, and save millions of lives through fewer respiratory illnesses.

India was one of the countries to sign onto the G20 communique in St. Petersburg, inducing the United States to take an aggressive stance on the issue of HFCs.  The U.S. hoped that India would sign an agreement in Washington, D.C. before the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the U.S. in the next week, however, instead of immediately agreeing to the dialogue for the phase out, India first wants a bi-lateral talk with the U.S.  It has consented to begin the dialogue after said talk, but if they can continue the delay until November, they may be able to buy at least another year or two during which it can seek some trade-offs at the UN climate talks before completely giving into the HFCs.

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