For those who were disenchanted with the results of the most recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, a recent development gives at least one reason to be optimistic. The formation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants was announced on Thursday, February 16th by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.[1]

It is a partnership between certain developed and developing nations with the aim of reducing the concentration of short-lived greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate warming in the short-term.  It is the first effort to focus on short-lived GHGs collectively and it is intended to augment current efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally. The participating countries include Canada, Sweden, the United States, Mexico, Ghana, and Bangladesh.

Three GHGs are the focus of this initiative: Methane, Black Soot and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  Each is a contributor to climate change and is also short-lived in the atmosphere, from a matter of days to approximately 15 years. This can be contrasted with carbon dioxide, the most well-known GHG, which has an average atmospheric lifetime of longer than a century.

By reducing the atmospheric concentration of these short-lived GHGs, it should be possible to see strong and relatively quick climate change mitigation. A recent NASA study estimated that 0.5oC of global warming could be avoided by reducing the atmospheric concentrations of key short-lived GHGs like Methane and Black Soot.[2]  This is an important finding since the International Panel on Climate Change has determined the maximum allowable global temperature increase to avoid catastrophic climate change is 2oC. Furthermore, the study indicates that these emissions reductions could boost international crop yields and prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths related to these atmospheric pollutants.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants pledges to help reduce the atmospheric concentration of short-lived pollutants via a multi-faceted plan. It will work with already existing groups like the Arctic Council and Global Methane Initiative, create national policy priorities, mobilize funds, raise awareness, and support further scientific research into the atmospheric effects of these pollutants.

Tackling the problem presented by climate change is easily one of the most difficult and important tasks set before humankind. Any viable long-term plan will need to deal with all the issues—most importantly, our dependence on fossil fuels as an energy resource. However, with global action on climate change mitigation stalling, this seems to be a reasonable, albeit small, step forward.

-Erik Janssen

(Engineering Physics, MASc, Year 2 at McMaster University)