In The Field

Poznan: A push for early action on climate

Even if the international community is able to sign a global warming treaty in Copenhagen in 2009, ratification and implementation could take years. This inevitable lag is reviving interest in various fast-track strategies that could slow the rate of warming today, providing a little breathing room for the carbon dioxide regulations to kick in.

Leading the charge is Durwood J. Zaelke, a man of many titles, one of which is president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. Zaelke begins his talks by citing recent research by Veerabhadran Ramanathan at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography indicating that we are already facing warming of 2.4 degrees Celsius – based on greenhouse gases that have already been pumped into the atmosphere.

He quickly slides into a host of impacts, from melting glaciers and ice caps to droughts, storms and the like, rattling off various unpredictable “tipping points” that could lead to irreversible damage. “Climate is no longer just a mid- to long-term problem. The fact is, it’s a problem for us today,” he says. “That changes the focus.”

So what to do?

Zaelke has a list of ideas that he’s been sharing with folks here in Poznan. At the top is “black carbon,” or soot, particularly from things like internal-combustion engines and cook stoves in the developing world. He says it is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of its heat-trapping potential (many put methane in that slot). And when this dark soot falls on ice the Tibetan Plateau and in the Arctic, he says, it also lowers the albedo and promotes melting.

The good news is that the problem is theoretically easy to solve – given money and the will. Start by scrapping old vehicles, installing filters, and cleaning up the fuel. Shipping regulations could be strengthened to conserve fuel around the ports, he says, and efforts to replacing old cook-stoves in Asia could be accelerated. The United States and Europe have already shown it can be done, Zaelke says, and the pay-off is quick as soot only stays in the atmosphere for a matter of weeks. Healthy air is a bonus.

Moving down his list, Zaelke advocates biomass-based charcoal – or biochar (subscription required) – to lock up carbon dioxide in soils and methane recovery from farms and waste facilities, a relatively simple and increasingly profitable venture. Zaelke also believes more resources should be put into the already-successful Montreal Protocol, which was created to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals but has recently expanded its mission to include greenhouse gases (more on that later).

Zaelke and others believe these strategies could fit under the climate convention’s umbrella, but delegates themselves are focused on other things. Ana Maria Kleymeyer, who represents Argentina’s Ministry of Environment under both the Montreal Protocol and the UN climate convention, says these types of activities might need to be kick-started outside the UN process first.

“We thought the idea would have legs,” Kleymeyer says. “Here are some opportunities to take on some really early actions, but it’s not happening. It’s pretty frustrating.”


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