By Michael Shank
As the United Nations convenes world leaders this month in New York to discuss ways to reduce global warming, the United States Senate has the opportunity to discuss the most important lever the U.S. government can pull to cool the planet and make our air healthier to breathe. And just in time. The U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization just announced that CO2 pollution levels are at a record annual high.
The Senate, in doing so, won’t have to secure comprehensive consensus on climate legislation, a feat that has, so far, eluded Congress. While Americans already indicated this summer that they’re willing to pay more to curb climate change, a critical next step in any climate legislation coming out of Washington, there’s a super easy alternative available to break the Congressional climate gridlock.
The answer is in super-pollutants. More harmful than carbon dioxide (their ‘global warming potential’ is 100-3000 times that of carbon dioxide), super-pollutants are responsible for 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. The good news is that they’re super easy to eradicate and the Environmental Protection Agency is actively engaged in cleaning up aerosols, a major source of super-pollutants.
The bad news is that if we ignore these super-pollutants – ” e.g. methane, black carbon, soot from diesel and cook stoves, refrigerants – ” these chemicals, also known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are expected to double by 2020 and nearly triple by 2030 in the U.S. That’s a serious threat. By then, they’re out of our control and their contribution to climate change will be insufferably high.
If we can get rid of these nasty pollutants, however, we remove the annual emissions equivalent of between 6.5 million and nearly 9 million cars from America’s roadways. That’s a serious dent in emissions reductions. We also prevent 2 million premature deaths, prevent 30 million tons of crop loss, and cut the rate of sea level rise by 25 percent. The time to act, therefore, is now.
Action in the Senate to make America safe from super-pollutants won’t mean that cars and stores will be stripped of their air conditioning units. It will mean that safer alternatives will be standardized and, ultimately, mainstreamed. That’s why administrative action, through the EPA, and Congressional input, is so critical. And we won’t be acting alone. Europe is already moving away from hydrofluorocarbons, with a goal of reducing HFCs by 79 percent by 2030 making the market ripe for a U.S. transition.
Given how pervasive super-pollutants are in American industry and individual livelihoods, the effort to reduce them will require an all hands on deck approach. This will be a ‘whole of government’ agenda. That means all relevant players within the Administration, including Departments of Defense, Interior, Commerce, Energy, State, Transportation and Agriculture, will be brought on board.
Whether it is mitigating gas leakage and venting, developing markets for clean cook stoves, or expanding access to diesel particulate filters, almost every office within the U.S. government can play a role in making our air cleaner and our planet cooler. Those benefiting from this endeavor include every American on our homeland and countries overseas where our government is doing development.
That’s why Senators Chris Murphy and Susan Collins’ bipartisan legislation – ” the Super Pollutants Act of 2014 – ” is so necessary. It will put in place the necessary framework for fostering interagency cooperation, prioritizing commonsense emissions reduction strategies, recycling high-global warming potential refrigerants, mitigating methane leaks, and expanding access to diesel-scrubbing technologies. No small task, but a critical one for our, and the planet’s, survival.
All of this is eminently doable and makes much sense from an economic, environmental and, perhaps most importantly, a public health perspective. Doing something, anything, to reduce our greenhouse gases is now a mainstream agenda, supported by even the financial titans, such as Hank Paulson and Mike Bloomberg, who are constantly thinking about risks to business.
Super-pollutants are not exempt from this risk assessment and deserve our every effort to minimize their effect on our health and the environment. This September, we have an opportunity to come together, in a bipartisan way, and make our industries cleaner and greener. The time is now, before the doubling and tripling of these super-pollutants makes them impossible to prevent.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.