Side Event on "Quick Impact on Climate Change: The Option of Reducing Short-lived Climate Forcers"

Daniel A. Reifsnyder
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
26th Session of the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum of the United Nations Environment Programme
Nairobi, Kenya

As Prepared for Delivery

The United States welcomes UNEP’s attention to the issue of near-term climate change, and we congratulate UNEP and the report’s authors on the release of this new assessment and analysis. This congratulation includes the U.S. government scientists who contributed to the report, including the report’s chair, Dr. Drew Shindell of NASA.

We agree with the fundamental premise of this assessment – that action on short-lived climate forcers is important to protect our climate system and human health and the environment. As the report states quite clearly, efforts to reduce the rate of near-term climate change are an important complement to rapid reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. This is a “both-and” situation, not an “either-or.” We need to work to reduce the near-term rate of warming at the same time as we effect a rapid transition to low-carbon economies.

I also appreciate that the report draws out the extensive overlap between measures that reduce near-term warming and practices that improve human health and the quality of our environment. These are the kinds of win-win solutions we believe merit serious consideration.

We’ve known for some time that particulate matter like black carbon is a risk factor for heart disease and lung cancer, while tropospheric ozone has significant impacts on respiratory illness. Combined, these impacts lead to premature deaths thought to number in the millions

every year. One of the most intriguing conclusions of this report is that available mitigation strategies have the potential to reduce this number of unnecessary deaths in a dramatic fashion, with the largest health benefits occurring in Asia and in Africa. The opportunity is remarkable.

Added on top of that direct health benefit is the very real impact that tropospheric ozone has on crop yields, and that black carbon has on precipitation patterns. The potential to enhance food and water security by reducing emissions of both represents another complementarity between climate and health that should push us to action.

When it comes to regional and global climate impacts, this report adds to a growing appreciation in the scientific literature regarding the significant and, in some instances, complex ways in which black carbon and tropospheric ozone influence climate patterns. The report’s emphasis on sensitive climate zones like the Arctic and the Himalayas is particularly apt, as the enhanced impact of black carbon and ozone in these regions is an issue that warrants focused regional climate strategies on top of our shared global effort on greenhouse gas mitigation.

I won’t repeat all of the findings of the report, but I would like to comment on one general issue: the rate of near-term warming. It’s very important that we think clearly about this matter, and that we understand how it relates to long-term climate goals.

First, we all need to recognize that slowing the near-term rate of warming by acting on short-lived climate forcers does not “buy us time” to act on carbon dioxide. We need to act now on CO2, because today’s emissions will affect Earth’s climate for centuries to come. Working on black carbon or tropospheric ozone won’t change that fact. What acting on near-term warming can do for us is to slow down the alarming rate of change that we’ve seen in the Arctic and elsewhere and, in the process, delay the onset of some feedbacks that further accelerate warming.

Also, as this report and others point out, by acting on short-lived forcers today we push back the date at which the climate will cross certain temperature thresholds. This doesn’t buy us time to act on carbon dioxide, but it provides a critical opportunity to avert the largest impacts of 21st century warming while we work to rapidly draw down global CO2 emissions. This is an absolutely key point for a successful global climate strategy.

What the U.S. is doing:

The United States has made significant strides on the issue of short-lived climate forcers.

  • On black carbon, our emissions are declining, and regulations are in place to make sure that a rapid decline continues over the next 20 years.

o Today, more than 60% of U.S. black carbon emissions come from mobile sources.

o Under existing air quality and health measures, we project a 95% reduction in black carbon emissions from on-road diesel sources along with a 75-90% reduction in black carbon from off-road sources, all achieved by 2030.

  • We’ve also reached out to international partners to work on black carbon research and mitigation.

o This includes co-chairing the Arctic Council Taskforce on Short-lived Climate Forcers as well as the Ad-Hoc Expert Group on Black Carbon convened under the auspices of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

o We are also founding partners of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which has a goal of having 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020, toward a long-term vision of universal adoption of clean and efficient cooking solutions. The United States government has committed 50 million dollars to this effort.

o In addition, we continue to provide active support for the global Partnership on Clean Fuels and Vehicles,

o And we are working with our Arctic partners to implement the 5 million dollar Arctic Black Carbon initiative that we announced in December 2009. To address a dominant source of black carbon deposition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in October 2010 began implementing a $1.5 million, two-year initiative to develop a better understanding of the relative black carbon impact of agricultural burning and forest fires, inform the design of black carbon mitigation programs, and implement pilot projects designed to demonstrate and evaluate agricultural burning and forest fire mitigation options. These activities focus primarily on Russia.

o Also as part of the Arctic Black Carbon Initiative, the U.S. EPA will implement a $2.5 million program designed to mitigate the effects of black carbon in the Arctic resulting from diesel sources, focusing on emissions from the maritime, transport, and residential sectors in Russia.

  • On tropospheric ozone, we’ve worked actively to improve air quality by mitigating ozone precursors. One that I’d like to mention in particular is methane, which is both a major ozone precursor and, with an atmospheric lifetime of only about 12 years, is the single largest short-lived climate forcer in its own right.

o Domestically, United States methane emissions have declined by 7.5% since 1990.

o We’ve achieved this through regulations and partnership programs. For example, we have actively regulated air pollutants from landfills, while at the same time collaborating with industries and local governments on methane capture from landfills and coal beds, and also partnering on agriculture through the AgSTAR program.

o It’s an example of how both regulations and partnerships can be used to achieve improved air quality and climate benefit.

o Internationally, we are proud of the work that the Global Methane Initiative, with its 38 member nations, has done to address emissions. We recently pledged 50 million dollars over the next five years in support of the Global Methane Initiative.

o We are also engaged in complementary work that the Global Research Alliance is undertaking to address methane in agricultural sectors. Agriculture is a major source of methane and is, we believe, an opportunity area for mitigation.

  • Finally, I would like to mention another of the short-lived forcers that has to be part of our strategy to slow near-term warming: HFCs. HFCs represent a rapidly growing fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, and many of them have lifetimes of less than 20 years: in other words, like methane, mitigation of HFCs today will slow the rate of warming in the near future.

o In the United States, regulations have halved our HFC emissions relative to what they would have been without controls.

o More importantly, we have partnered with Canada and Mexico in an effort to apply the tools of the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer to achieve a drastic global reduction in HFC emissions. At last year’s Meeting of the Parties in Bangkok, 90 countries signed a declaration recognizing that the growth in HFC use is a major challenge to the world’s climate system that must be addressed through concerted international action. I hope and expect that the UNEP report, with its attention to the challenge of reducing the near-term warming rate, will encourage other countries to join us, and to turn this opportunity into a reality.

This part of the panel today has been asked to consider the possible policy response to the UNEP Report. Briefly, I would note that there are three tracks of activities already underway on: (1) HFCs, (2) methane, and (3) black carbon. Much is already being done and it would be a mistake to interfere with or undermine, even inadvertently, these very positive ongoing efforts. At the same time, I believe we face three challenges: (1) to raise consciousness about short-lived climate forcers, (2) to link the various ongoing efforts together in some way so that they are seen as parts of a larger whole; and (3) to increase understanding of the potential environmental benefits of enhanced action in all three tracks.

Thank you, Minister Andreas Carlgren of Sweden and Minister Dr. Mohammed Hasan Mahmud of Bangladesh for the opportunity to participate in this event and, again, my congratulations to UNEP and the scientists on the release of its assessment report.