Congress vs. the Super-Pollutants

Reining in so-called "super-pollutants" is something lawmakers can do today.

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Despite clear warnings of a new climate normal, we still have not made significant progress in Congress to address the root causes. Global climate change has resulted in devastating consequences, but Congress and the president remain gridlocked. Examples of extreme weather occurrences are constantly in the news; think of the devastating typhoon in the Philippines or the wildfire and flood-ravaged American West.

It's getting harder and harder to bounce back from more frequent, and stronger, extreme weather events, and global emissions continue to rise. Scientific projections for the future are worst if we continue down our current path. Late last month, the International Energy Agency projected a CO2 emissions rise of 20 percent by 2035 and a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, there was not much progress at the international community's annual climate change conversation held this year in Poland, where there were few new commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is some real opportunity. Despite the dismal read-out from the Warsaw meeting 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.

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According to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, these pollutants have contributed up to 45 percent of manmade 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 four pollutants – often referred to as 'super pollutants,' thanks to their more potent carbon punch than CO2 – would reduce the sea level rise rate by 24-50 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.

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Sustainable development is another part of the solution to mitigating super pollutants. If you've ever driven behind a big truck puffing out black smoke, then you've encountered black carbon. It isn't pretty, especially when it's in your lungs. And yet it's so easy to prevent. While some black carbon occurs naturally from forest fires, most stems from manmade processes. Poor processing of fossil fuels, biofuel, and biomass, which is still happening throughout much of the developing world, creates black carbon. It follows then that we must ensure renewable and sustainable energy technologies are affordable and abundant not just in the developed world, but the developing one as well.

We cannot forget about petroleum-based fuels as we support cleaner options. As oil and gas resources are developed around the world, methane is often leaked or vented into the atmosphere. It contributes to smog in the ozone, posing a serious threat to air quality and public health, similar to the aforementioned black carbon, which is also released when methane is flared. The technologies already exist to capture leaking methane from oil and gas production, landfills and wastewater treatment centers, and they have been proven cost-effective. We need to continue supporting these existing solutions precisely because methane is twenty times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. And, the warmer the air gets, a process exacerbated by methane, the quicker the earth's permafrost – which contains immense amounts of frozen organic matter and thus methane – thaws, the release of which will be devastating to ecosystems around the world.

Similarly, hydroflourocarbons, known as HFC's, are damaging our planet's ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol, the world's most effective environmental treaty to date, banned similar super pollutants in 2008. However, the phase down of those others has led to a rise in HFCs, mostly in refrigerants and coolants. Greener air conditioners, refrigeration units and insulating foams already exist, but we have to make sure that rapidly developing countries have access to HFC alternatives that are available in developed countries. By doing so, in 40 years we could cut the global warming rate in half.

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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 phasing out of 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 non-governmental 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 – and the sooner the better – to mitigate super pollutants. Courage on this front would slow global climate change, improving public health and reducing crop-yield loss. That would be a major win for America and the world. The time for serious action has clearly arrived. And it starts with addressing super pollutants.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., represents the 52nd District and is the climate taskforce chair for the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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