With gridlock gripping Washington, D.C., and preventing action on even simple fronts, it’s hard to see how Congress and the president will agree on good climate action policy. But the need is clear. Examples of extreme weather occurrences seem to be constant. Between the devastating typhoon in the Philippines and the wildfire- and flood-ravaged American West, it is clear that we are continuing to experience the devastating consequences of global climate change. The timing of international inaction could not be worse, as the need for specific reduction targets remains great.
Thankfully, there is some real opportunity. Despite the dismal read-out from the recent climate meetings in Poland and the lackluster enthusiasm for action here in Washington, the short-term opportunity is found in four particular pollutants: methane, tropospheric ozone, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon. Consider them the low-hanging fruit in the effort to keep the planet cooler, healthier and safer.
According to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, these pollutants have contributed up to 45 percent of man-made global warming to date. We can make big gains in reducing super pollutant emissions without changing our entire energy system — the alternatives and technologies to capture emissions already exist.
It may be hard to believe but if our country committed to mitigating the impacts of these four pollutants, we could reduce the warming trend by 50 percent by 2050. That buys us some serious time for the rest of the CO2 commitments from transportation and industry to catch up. And, based on the poor output from the Poland meetings, it is clear we need something to buy us time sooner rather than later.
Doing something with these pollutants — often referred to as “super pollutants,” thanks to their more potent carbon punch than CO2 — would reduce the sea level rise rate by 24 percent to 50 percent, saving low-lying coastal cities across multiple continents from certain flooding. With these clear gains within reach, why wouldn’t we act immediately? Especially when the technology to mitigate these super pollutants already exists and the potential benefits are so significant.
If we move now, and act quickly, we can start reducing the roughly 3 million deaths that stem from air pollution each year. We can start reducing the 32 million tons of annual losses in wheat, rice, maize and soybean crops. The economic savings from this would be real and tangible for countries across the globe.
These goals are within our reach. So how do we do it?
It has to start at the ground level: capturing methane at landfills and in resource development, transitioning away from charcoal cooking stoves, farming more sustainably, and expanding the Montreal Protocol to include a phase-down on HFCs. At the federal level, we should create a task force on super pollutants that brings together federal, state, local and tribal governments with associations, private industry, academic groups, and nongovernmental organizations. A review of existing and potential policies to reduce overlap and maximize efficiency and effectiveness is desperately needed. It’s time to coordinate and communicate.
That is why the Super Pollutant Emissions Reduction Act was introduced in Congress this year. It would create such a task force and get this process moving. The discussions in Poland didn’t cut it, so Congress must act, the sooner the better, to mitigate super pollutants.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.