Short-term climate fix risks blanking CO2

Cooking stove Modernising Africa's cooking stoves would save lives, money and emissions

The US is leading a new six-nation initiative aimed at curbing climate change by tackling short-lived warming agents including methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Bangladesh, Canada, Mexico, Sweden and Ghana are signed up, and the UN Environment Programme (Unep) is going to co-ordinate the venture.

Precisely how it's going to work is unclear.

But based on existing experiences around the world and on the priorities of some of the nations involved, measures are likely to include changing farming methods to reduce methane emissions from rice paddy, investing in efficient and clean cooking stoves for Africa and South Asia, and upgrading landfill sites and wastewater treatment facilities to capture methane.

Methane is a more potent warming gas than carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule; but its lifetime in the atmosphere is in the order of a few decades, rather than centuries.

Black carbon - a component of soot - increases the Earth's absorption of solar energy.

Academic backing for the idea of tackling these substances urgently has come in a number of reports, but two particularly spring to mind.

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

Last year, Unep released a detailed analysis concluding that "a package of 16 measures could, if fully implemented across the globe, save close to 2.5 million lives a year; avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tonnes annually and deliver near-term climate protection of about half a degree C by 2040".

(The life-saving aspect derives mainly from the reduction in air pollution achieved by cleaning up cooking stoves and urban transport.)

The other report was a paper in Science journal last month from a group of mainly US academics led by Drew Shindell, which reached broadly similar conclusions - and said these curbs would be affordable.

Still, the new initiative, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, hasn't been greeted with universal warmth; and there are two inter-related reasons why.

The first is that according to the science, tackling short-lived climate pollutants doesn't prevent global warming - it just delays it.

The main graph in the Shindell Science paper explains this clearly.

Graph Tackling black carbon (BC) and methane but not CO2 just delays warming, the Science paper found - it doesn't prevent it

They conclude that implementing all the recommended measures for methane and black carbon but doing nothing about carbon dioxide delays exceeding the oft-touted 2C threshold for temperature rise - but it still gets exceeded in the end.

By contrast, tackling CO2 and not doing anything about the short-lived substances sees more warming in the next few decades - but beyond about 2060, it's more effective than tackling the short-lived agents.

And it's worth emphasising that the CO2 reduction pathway that the paper used - an International Energy Agency scenario that would stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at the equivalent of 450 parts per million of CO2 (450ppm CO2e) - is regarded by many as too lax by far.

Methane recovery pipe Recovering methane from landfill sites is a tried and tested way of reducing emissions

The essential takeaway sentence from the entire paper on the relationship between tackling CO2 and tackling the short-lived agents must be this: "Implementing both substantially reduces the risks of crossing the 2°C threshold".

And the essential word in that sentence must be "both".

The Oxford University climate scientist Myles Allen is far more pithy.

"Given that we don't have any prospect of a credible plan to reduce CO2 emissions, the suggestion that immediate cuts in methane and black carbon will reduce the risk of dangerous long-term climate change is pure fantasy," he comments.

And this leads me to the second reason why the new initiative isn't being welcomed with completely open arms; because it could produce the impression that enough is being done.

The US has history here, having established the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (by some spooky parallel, also a six-nation bloc) and later the Major Economies Forum.

The publicity at the time of their formation said they weren't designed to replace the UN climate convention process but to complement it.

The reality was rather different, with elements of the controversial 2009 Copenhagen Accord taken straight from the MEF blueprint rather than UN negotiating text, and a number of important nations finding it was the way they preferred to do business.

Now the line has surfaced again, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring the new coalition will "complement but not supplant" the main international efforts to curb emissions.

On a pragmatic basis, some of the measures on black carbon and methane are doable, affordable and bring real health and development benefits as well, particularly on clean cooking stoves.

But emphasising short-term warmers in the absence of meaningful action on CO2, to some observers, smacks of short-term politics and an unwillingness to get to grips with the main issue.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I have not seen studies on fracking, but I have read reports that tell me US is fracking all over the place. Fracking leaks methane, more than cows. Yet, there is no evidence that US will reduce fracking (which is also a dangerous procedure in disturbing the earth's core).
    So let's talk about cooking and distract from fracking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    So far, China & India have been quite resistant to this particular way of dealing with HFC problem. There must be a good reason for this resistance, which I believe is fairly apparent.
    I'm suggesting, the new initiative may have more political agenda than clean air agenda. I have to wonder to what extent the US itself will implement its own protocol while it is leaning all over China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    It is thanks to the CO2/global warming lobby that have directly influenced our attitude to nuclear power, which is CO2 free. Thus nuclear power is de facto green.

    The nuclear industry must have been over the moon when CO2 became the global warming issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Re 17: It's fake. It doesn't need "proof". It's overwhelmingly fake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Compare the data with Man Utd's runs to the finals/semi finals of the FA Cup & you can find an almost perfect fit with record hot years.....which does not mean M Utd doing well in the Cup is the cause of is the sceptics who utterly lack scientific credibility......& BTW that document has not yet been proven faked, only claimed as fake.....

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    USA to tackle climate change.

    Although this is to be applauded, by excluding CO2 means that the focus is on African Stoves and Asian Paddy Fields.

    This does nothing to get Americans out of their gas guzzlers

    It also does not address the CH4 produced to supply the USA with limitless quantities of beef. If it did affect the supply of beef, I suspect the response of the USA would be different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    We now seem to have the cart before the horse. We have not yet proven climate warming; scientists are still being challenged. So, how can we know what will help & what will not? That being said, it's easy to see the benefit in reducing in air pollution achieved by cleaning up cooking stoves & urban transport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @8 & 9

    You two have just confirmed my point "alarmists unsceptically say it's man" or is there any part of you that actually thinks maybe CO2 isn't able to cause cAGW?

    I read as much as I can about cAGW and, based on empirical evidence, I don't accept CO2 is the culprit, but that doesn't mean every time new data is released I don't have doubts and need to re-check my understanding

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm not surprised that this follows hotfoot on the heels of the FakeGate fiasco, but I think an honest apology would have been more edifying.

    Mr Black - do you not think you have let the BBC and your profession down, never mind yourself?
    All those sneering jibes based on a fake document that you hadn't bothered to check?

    An apology is cheap, but goes a long way..

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Any reason to get enclosed cooking stoves replacing open fires in poor homes has to be a good thing. Far less wood needs collecting or purchasing and the inhabitants get to breathe cleaner air, as the alarmists/sceptics already do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    UNEP predicts 2.5 million deaths.
    Ha Ha is this the same UNEP who prdeicted 50 million climate refugees by 2010? Where are they.

    Has the BBC completely lost the plot? Or the refugees :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    7.MangoChutney - "@3 Global warming is not a myth, the official records clearly show the world has warmed......alarmists unsceptically say it's man - sceptics say there is insufficient evidence"

    How much evidence do you need? It is available by the bucket load. None of it has been "bebunked" there is just claims that arise through a lack of understanding of the scientific process....

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    MangoChutney, the only "meme" here is man-made climate change scepticism,also known as hopeful inaction.

    Even a cursory risk assessment using the current scientific evidence weighted accordingly would say action now is far cheaper than action later. The energy crisis alone deems urgent action necessary,

    But I guess deniers work for Standard and Poors. I.e. ignore risk that might hit profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @3 Global warming is not a myth, the official records clearly show the world has warmed

    it's the cause of the warming that is up for grabs

    alarmists unsceptically say it's man

    sceptics say there is insufficient evidence

    I say man has played a part through land use changes, deforestation etc, but I don't accept the CO2 is evil meme

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    3.Balloon Rake - "If this goes ahead it won't make a blind bit of difference as everyone knows that global warming is a myth"

    No, you are utterly incorrect - a significant number of people "believe" global warming, more specifically anthropogenic global warming, to be a myth, but most people KNOW it is a reality because the actual science is so utterly overwhelming.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    it's like all those European finance crisis summits where a number of times they came away claiming some sort of deal but really they came up with nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    So they've managed to find another excuse for yet more sitting around and talking rather than actually doing anything.

    Some on guys, get your act together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    If this goes ahead it won't make a blind bit of difference as everyone knows that global warming is a myth

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Whilst any measures to actually reduce mankind's impact on our climate are to be welcomed, the phrase too little too late springs to mind.

    The risk of course is that these steps give people the excuse to say "but we are doing something" even when that something is not nearly enough.....


Page 7 of 8



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.