Climate change and bending the curve? A few usable ideas.

By Susanna Hecht, FCL of Global Environment and Resources, Professor of Urban Planning 

In the great Orson Wells movie, “A Touch of Evil”,  Orson (the corrupt cop) demands that Marlena Dietrich, a fortune teller,( kitted out in a black wig and a flouncy red “Mexican “ skirt) read his palm  and his fate.  She roughly takes his hand and flinging it back to him says “Future? You have no future. Your future is all used up”.  I think maybe we wouldn’t like to hear  Marlena’s pronouncement, but many of you reading this, will have grown up in a planet that has a profoundly different  climate from the one of a mere 30 years ago, and there is every reason to think that  we may be slipping from climate change to serious climate disruption much sooner than we think.—using up our future. There may be some ways out of it, it’s a huge collective action problem, one that has to unfold at several levels.

Last October, in San Diego  UC president Napolitano and Governor Brown convened a UC Climate  Summit which involved about 50 UC system profs with expertise across disciplines and geographies, as well as state officials, and people from the business and tech communities. I was one of these because of my work in tropical forests—the largest terrestrial Carbon sink and  active carbon absorbers, and maybe the biome on which climate change pivots.

The idea behind the summit was “Bending the Curve” — that is keeping the net warming below two degrees Celsius. If we continue as we have, and dump another trillion tons of CO2 equivalents into the atmosphere by 2050 the atmosphere could heat up to over 7 degrees Celsius.  Urban heat islands often experience heat of this magnitude, and the super heat waves that killed 14,000 in France about a decade ago, and the blazing Bangladeshi cities clocking in at over 112 degrees F carry heavy, if unreported death tolls  and affect many other organisms besides humans. But a few weeks ago you could have had the experience of the heated planet just by being in an open space in an urban LA after a week of heat. The concrete and asphalt store the heat and boot up ambient temps well beyond what a thermometer will show, and the heat wave, was, well, breaking records everywhere.

Here’s the central problem: CO2 is a very long lived GHG (Green house gas). It persists in the atmosphere for centuries  if not millennia, so we have a problem with “committed”  carbon: stuff junked into the atmosphere in the 18th 19th  and 20th centuries from wood, charcoal and fossil fuel combustion. There isn’t that much that can be done about  those emissions except to regret the past, I suppose.  It’s because of this committed carbon that so much of the Kyoto climate Protocol of 1997 focused on reducing emissions and shared but differentiated responsibilities.  Developing countries correctly argued that  the Global carbon burden was a first world artifact on which they had developed their economies at the expense and vulnerabilities of the rest of the world, a position not lacking in merit. Well, one can go on and on about the Protocol and its politics and vast forests have been felled and fields of soybeans devoted to the ink on this topic. There is a clear North South divide on its merits and responsibilities, and on its efficacy, which given the warming over the last decades  (and the last was the hottest on record) is hard a sell. At this moment when gas prices are low, and trucks and SUVs fly off US car lots (the  best year in more than a decade!), massive peat forest fires are burning in Indonesia (it emissions now exceed that of the entire US economy), and the  most dramatic hurricane on record—Patricia— sprung more or less out of no where with its 200 mph winds, Texas entirely flooded, again, well, one might well ask, maybe while wringing ones hands, or possibly pouring a more generous glass of wine, “what is to be done?”.  Bending the curve is a stop gap thing which buys time for technologies, for new kinds of mission control  for  emissions, for growing forests, for arborizing cities, for many things.  But the idea behind it is  the search for stuff that can work fast. When Vladimir Lenin asked, “what is to be done?”—the title of his famous incendiary pamphlet, the answer was “revolution” which he saw as creating an alternative to Tsarist Russia with its bloated and profligate elites and miserable toiling serfs. Maybe a revolution is necessary, but the summit crowd was decidedly reformist, but still in a hurry. And sometimes reformism can be surprisingly radical. Structural change often works in crablike ways: sometimes sideways movements gradually get you forward.

The UCOP gang of 50 identified  five “clusters”, But I want to concentrate on  a few which are able to be quite transformative, and that maybe you haven’t paid attention to  yet. The first and among the most achievable is phasing out of SLGPs.  (Short lived green house pollutants) many of which such as methane and hydroflouro carbons (HFCs) are considered super greenhouse gases because of their high CO2 equivalents : 1 metric ton methane is equal to 21 ton of CO2, 1 ton HFCs  are 134 greater that 1ton of CO2. Looki ng at its warming potential over the next 20 years given the current rate of addition, HFCs global warming potential is about 3000 times that of CO2.  Attacking these has much quicker results because we are pouring them in to the atmosphere thus changes  can resolve quickly, but there are alternatives to their use, histories of controlli ng them as well as binding international treaties  Methane (fracking, landfills,  manure pools in industrial livestock)HFCs (hydroflourocarbons which are used in refrigeration, and expellents), black carbon (basically soot) ozone  and have  ephemeral lifetimes when compared with venerable Carbon: up to a few days (black carbon) to about 15 years. Vastly reducing these would reduce emissions by some 40%, keeping us within that 2 degree C  bend . The plus about these SLGPs is that their resident time in the atmosphere is short,  so its possible to have a big impact relatively quickly. CO2 is very important but maybe we need to think about the relative merits and strategies of different types of economies and GHG emissions. I’d like to focus on three dynamics: black carbon, HFC/s and the kind carbon emission in the tropics, land use change. We have some good histories to learn from here

Control of black carbon (BC) has a long history of success even though it has been one of the most prevalent and toxic SLGHs, and it changes albedos is many places from glassy reflective white to heat absorbant black. Places like London and LA have drastically reduced BC by as much as 90%: both are major atmospheric success stories and how it was achieved are not technological, institutional or social  mysteries. The actions taken against London’s  “Killer Fog”  and LA’s “killer smog” mobilized health concerns, sharp regulations, monitoring  and serious institutional development.  While  LA Noir, and London mysteries relied literally on “Atmospherics” to supply choking context, opaque and gloomy metaphor, the contrast between dark doings and clear light present useful literary juxtapositions, more powerful because of irony and contrast. And in the meantime,  we can all breathe easier, although millions of people an d millions of cars are still generate ton of CO2 and nitrous oxide. But BC can be nailed, but it takes political will, and political action. The science and the practices are in place. Its not easy, but not impossible.

Last week in broiling Dubai, agreement was reached to phase out HFC’s. HFCs are increasing 10-15% per year,  making them the fastest growing greenhouse gas in much of the world.  Mainly used as coolants for Air conditioning and refrigerants their use has been growing as air conditioning becomes increasingly necessary in urban areas due to urban heat island effects, and the expansion of large tropical cities. There are numerous alternatives to this gas. Phasing down HFCs will provide climate mitigation up to billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2025 and avoid up to 0.5C of warming by 2100. HFCs are covered by the Montreal Accords which  were signed in 1989, and was probably the most successful international agreement ever. The widespread consensus —due to many alternatives and substitutes—is one of the signal achievements  for mitigating  climate change.This will be a major contribution to the world’s efforts to keep temperatures from passing 2C above pre-Industrial levels, beyond which potentially irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts are expected.

Methane can be dealt with in agricultural scenarios thru composting, and in other sites through capture and used in burning  to generate electricity. The point here is that  not that much needs ot be invented to reduce these—regulations , incentives, institiutional development, and increasingly decentralized energy grids can help with this. In many cases there are case studies and best practices that work in both the developed and developing world.

One of the most important dimensions  for addressing  long lives and dangerous CO2 involves looking at carbon sinks: places on the planet where C is stored. The acidifying ocean is one (about 24% of emissions) and not a happy story there, but far more positive are focusing on forest carbon sinks about 26%). That means thinking about forests both near and far as part of a major set of solutions for mitigating climate change and for adapting to it. There is plenty of uncertainty about the size of the terrestrial carbon sink, but tropical and other high biomass forests are the key elements for any climate strategy  There are two dimensions here: Not cutting down these large forests, and promoting forest recovery where possible.  Earlier I mentioned that fires from Indonesian forests on any given day in October were greater that than the emissions from the entire US economy. Deforestation in the 1990s and the 2000s  rivaled the entire global transport system in terms of emissions (about 15-20%), and at he height of clearing, Amazonia alone was seen as generating close to 20% of GHG emissions. There is plenty of uncertainty about these numbers because the monitoring capacity wasn’t quite as good as it is today. But as the graph below shows, From 2004 to today total emissions from deforestation declined by 80%, the most successful GHG mitigation on the planet so far. Take a look :

Susanna H. Brazilian Amazon

This was not easy to do, obviously, but it happened through action from social movements to international agreements, with scientists, the nation state, local states, businesses, international Amazonian deforestation product  boycotts of Beef and Soy, economic incentives and stiff fines, as well as enforcement of regulations and a wide array of spillovers from other policies and regional processes. The result? The  carbon savings was about equal to taking all the cars of the road in the US for three years. So REDD (the program for Payment for environmental services ) for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation needs to be as central as any other emissions reduction policy. There are lots of caveats about the implementation, but just in Brazil’s protected areas (indigenous, sustainable development and parks—about 56% of Amazonia) has the potential to avoid   8.5 pg of carbon by 2050.

I’ll have more to say about recovering forests in the next blog: Important to know; they are very dynamic, and there are a lot of them.

So there is a lot in the news and a lot to watch for in these negotiations. There are big free rider problems that aren’t  particularly helped by our congress which is still largely in denial.  But we shall see and I’ll get back to you at the New Year, to give you an assessment!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *