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.
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.
Paul Bledsoe is senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.