by Judith Curry
It’s time to move beyond the old debates and endless gridlock, and find pragmatic, new leverage points to tackle climate change. – Jon Foley
One reason we’re so stuck is that most of the climate solutions being proposed are beyond the capabilities and vision of national political leadership.
Let’s face it: Politicians in Washington can’t even pass a routine budget bill, and the United Nations can’t pass a resolution condemning Syria for gassing its own civilians.
[W]e need to match our climate solutions to situations where leadership is still effective. We need to find targeted, strategic opportunities to reduce emissions, matching solutions to effective leadership.
In the search for effective climate solutions, we need to look for what I call “planet levers”: Places where relatively focused efforts, targeted the right way, can translate into big outcomes.
In the search for planet levers to address climate change, we should look for ways to significantly cut emissions that don’t require grand policy solutions. We need practical solutions to substantially cut emissions that work with a handful of nimble actors — including a few key nations, states, cities and companies — to get started.
Focusing on cities presents a particularly good set of levers to address climate change. Cities represent a nexus point of critical infrastructure — for electricity, communications, heating and cooling, and transportation — that are already in desperate need of improvement, and shifting them toward low-carbon “climate smart” technologies is a natural progression. Done right, most of these investments would improve the health, economic vitality, efficiency and livability of cities.
We also need to look beyond the energy sector for climate solutions. Yes, roughly 60 to 65 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from burning fossil fuels. But that means the other 35 to 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from other activities, which presents enormous opportunities for alternative climate actions. For the most part, these opportunities have been overlooked.
With that in mind, consider the following planet levers to address climate change:
Tropical Deforestation. Tropical deforestation releases roughly 10 to 17 percent of global CO2 emissions. That’s roughly comparable to theentire global transportation sector — including every car, truck, bus, plane and ship in the world — which emits roughly 15 percent.
Between 2000 and 2010 nearly half of all deforestation emissions were likely coming from just two countries: Brazil and Indonesia. And within those two countries, most of their deforestation emissions were linked to only four commodities — beef and soybeans in Brazil, and palm oil and timber in Indonesia.
Recent studies show that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by roughly 75 percent in the past five years, thanks to industry efforts to curb deforestation and grow crops elsewhere, widespread consumer pressure to produce deforestation-free agricultural products, and better enforcement of existing forest laws.
Agricultural Emissions. According to the U.N. FAO, roughly 75 percent of agricultural methane emissions come from livestock, and about 20 percent from rice fields. And roughly half of all of the rice emissions come from China and India alone. This presents tremendous opportunities to reduce emissions through targeted changes in agricultural policy and practice.
Likewise, nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture mainly occur in a few crops and a few concentrated regions. Current research suggests that the lion’s share of these emissions come from just a few countries (mostly China, India, the U.S. and parts of Western Europe) and from just a few large commodity crops (including corn, wheat, rice and a few others). Changes in fertilizer practices in a few crops and a few countries could make a huge difference, not only to climate change, but also to water quality, air quality and human health.
“Minor” Greenhouse Agents. Similarly, several other, lesser known greenhouse warming agents, including hydrofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, SF6 and black carbon, are mostly produced in concentrated sectors of the economy, often in just a few locations. In fact, the White House has been quietly working with China, India and the European Union on reducing emissions of several of these gases, including HFCs. While these gases are relatively small contributors to climate change, phasing them out is achievable in the near term.
Climate solutions based on these planet levers could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions with pragmatic, targeted actions that move beyond old debates and the current political paralysis. None of them requires the U.S. Congress or all 193 members of the U.N. to make a decision. They don’t require a wholesale transformation of the entire global economy. They won’t encounter the full-fledged resistance of the fossil fuel industry. Instead, they focus on three or four regions at a time, with perhaps a handful of industries working in cooperation with nonprofit groups and local governments, to make tremendous progress on targeted emissions reduction. And most of these solutions would pay tremendous economic and health benefits that go far beyond their impact on climate change.
JC comments: Foley’s essay echoes some of the points raised in Drew Shindell’s Climate Fast Attack Plan. Even if you are unconvinced by the AGW and CAGW arguments, the risk of CAGW should be regarded as a possible scenario. In that context, looking for do-able solutions that have ancillary positive benefits on health, the environment or the economy seems to be a sensible, no regrets approach. CAGW purists didn’t like the Climate Fast Attack Plan, since they felt it would take our eyes off the CO2 emissions ball, which is where they think the focus should be. Foley’s idea of coming up with some solutions to put in the ‘win’ column, even if small-scale, seems sensible to me.
For further info on Jon Foley, Andy Revkin did a nice profile on Foley: Meet Jonathan Foley, ‘Climate Pragmatist.’ Foley has also has a TED talk The Other Inconvenient Truth, on global food demand and supply. I like reading Foley’s articles, since the ‘pragmatism’ theme often seems to be missing in the policy discussion on climate change.