What lies ahead for international action on global warming for the rest of 2012? (Part 3)

Mind the Gap.PNG

In Durban, South Africa countries agreed to: launch the negotiations on a new legal agreement to be adopted in 2015, move forward implementation of the agreements reached in Cancun, finalize the negotiations on the second round of the Kyoto Protocol, and address the gap between what the science demands and the current actions that countries have pledged.  This later issue – “closing the mitigation gap” – is a critical task that must begin in 2012.  Many of the actions to begin to close the gap are poised for even greater movement in 2012.  These steps could go a long way in helping address global warming and complement the domestic actions that many countries are beginning to implement.

This is a four-part post.  Part 1 focuses on the actions at that are happening at home in key countries and a couple of key issues to watch in these countries.  Part 2 considers the actions at Rio+20 that are essential for moving forward on global warming action.  Part 3—this post— discusses key actions to “close the mitigation gap” that are at critical turning points in 2012.  Part 4 outlines some key debates this year that are important to “lay the groundwork for future action”.


Since Copenhagen, countries accounting for more than 80% of the world’s global warming pollution have come forward with commitments to reduce their pollution.  While this was important progress, a number of experts have concluded that there is a gap between these commitments and what the science says is needed to put the world on a safer path—this is the “mitigation gap” (see figure).

UNEP Mitigation Gap.PNG

In Durban, countries recognized this gap and agreed to begin seriously negotiating on steps to “close the gap”.  This was out of recognition that failure to close this gap has serious implications, as Sai Navoti, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, recently stated to Reuters: "Failing to close the gap immediately will lead to significant risks across various tipping points and global average temperature exceeding 3.5 degrees".

Countries started to outline some of the key options for “closing the gap” at the negotiations in Bonn (see workshop on “enhanced action”, part 1 and part 2.)  So here are some key actions that are poised for progress in 2012 that help to “close the gap”.

Phasing down the “super GHG” HFCs. Global emissions of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are growing rapidly largely due to two factors: (1) countries are moving out of substances that deplete the ozone layer towards these replacement substances that have a “super” impact on global warming, and (2) due to the growth of air conditioners, refrigerators, and other technologies that use HFCs.  This growth is expected to increase rapidly (see figure).  If left uncontrolled, global emissions of HFCs in 2050 are projected to be the equivalent of 9 -19% of projected global CO2 emissions in business-as-usual scenarios and 28-45% of the emissions allowed under a global warming reduction pathway.  So phasing-down HFCs with a high impact on global warming is a critical step in slowing global warming.

HFC growth & the proposals.PNG

Out of this concern two proposals have been put forward to phase-down these HFCs under the Montreal Protocol – the “North American Proposal” (from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) and the “Micronesia Proposal” (from the Federated States of Micronesia).  Both of these proposals will make important contributions in reducing global warming and helping to “close the gap” (see figure). For example, the North American Proposal would achieve over 2 billion tons of carbon pollution reductions through 2020 and 88 billion tons through 2050.

More than 108 countries now support the effort to phase-down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.  Unfortunately China and India have blocked this negotiation but they will have another chance to change their position when countries meet this July for the next round of the Montreal Protocol negotiations. 

Reducing pollution from international transportation.  Left unregulated aviation’s carbon pollution is predicted to double by 2025 and quadruple by 2050, to levels that are unsustainable. As the E.U. recently said: “aviation could be a quarter of our total budget” [under a 2 degree Celsius global warming emissions budget].  Similar growing trends are predicted for shipping which is predicted to increase by 150–250% by 2050.    

Spurred by the E.U.’s common-sense program and the ensuing controversy, the U.N. agency in charge of aviation (International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO) has restarted a long-dormant focus on designing a global system to reduce aviation’s carbon pollution.  Having witnessed first-hand for 5 years how slow ICAO can be I’ll reserve judgment on whether this new action will lead to anything real.  But since airplane manufacturers are already producing more efficient aircraft and many airlines are starting to explore the use of biofuels, turning these dynamics into a real global push for less aviation pollution is a “no brainer”.  So who is going to stand in the way of making the aviation sector more sustainable?  After all, even the airlines claim to want a global solution (although their proposed approach is too weak).

In the shipping sector countries recently agreed to clean up the carbon pollution from new ships when the U.N. agency in charge of shipping (the International Maritime Organization, IMO) adopted an “energy efficiency design index”.  This was important progress and will lead to real reductions in carbon pollution, but we need a program that covers the existing fleet as there is huge potential to rebuild the existing fleet to use more advanced technologies and practices.  IMO is currently considering various options to develop a “market-based approach” and a large portion of the shipping industry recently came out in support of such an approach.  Time will tell whether countries can rally around a common-sense global approach to address the carbon pollution from the shipping industry but making a dent in this growing pollution would help “close the mitigation gap”.

Reducing black carbon and methane to protect public health and the climate system.  Coupled with deep reductions in the carbon pollution from energy and deforestation, efforts to reduce global warming pollution from black carbon and methane could go a long way in helping address global warming.  In fact, implementing 14 measures aimed at reducing these “short-lived climate pollutants” could help reduce global temperatures by 0.5°C by 2050 (see figure) and prevent millions of cases of lung and heart disease by 2030.

SLCFs Shindell graph.PNG

And there are a number of very reasonable steps to help curb this pollution.  For example, we can clean up the global diesel fleet by combining ultra-low sulfur fuel and particulate soot filters that would eliminate more than 90-95% of the diesel soot and black carbon from these sources.  And since diesel is estimated to count for around one-quarter of the world’s black carbon emissions this would help to reduce global warming pollution, while saving lives.  Likewise, putting a stop to methane leaks from natural gas drilling and operation could help reduce global warming.  And we know how to take a big dent out of these emissions as NRDC just identified 10 technologies which could reduce methane pollution from natural gas by 80% in the U.S. – with similar results expected throughout the world.  These and other options to reduce black carbon and methane are ripe for the picking.    


With so many promising options ready for action, it is time for countries to rally around turning these “options” into actions.  Many of these options will save money, lives, and provide other sustainable development benefits.  A new coalition has formed to try and help unlock some of these actions – the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – which is a welcome development.  And there are many additional forums where countries can make significant progress this year in helping to “close the gap”.  Looking beyond 2012 there are additional actions which can be unlocked, including by countries deepening their actions as they’ll likely find that the steps they take can be strengthened.

So let’s begin to close the gap this year by picking the ripe fruit that is in front of our noses.    


Photo: “Mind the Gap” logo from Climate Action Network International; this is a variation of a sign found throughout the London subway system to note the gap between the platform and the train.