Five steps Obama can take before leaving office to stave off climate disaster
Recent science is finding that impacts and economic costs from climate change — heats waves, droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, extreme precipitation, flooding, desertification, reduced crop yields and others — are certain to increase, but the worst of these impacts can be avoided if President Barack Obama takes a series of specific actions in his final year in office.
In his last State of the Union address Tuesday, expect the president to give climate change a more prominent role than ever before, in keeping with the White House view that climate has become a top tier ‘legacy’ issue for the president, and since many of Obama’s most critical climate decisions lie in the 12 months ahead. That’s particularly true because even a fully implemented Paris Agreement on climate will allow global temperatures to rise far beyond the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit scientists regard as the upper limit for even a semblance of climatic safety.
Fortunately, the president has options to specifically limit long-term temperature increases, and markedly reduce the chances of disastrous, runaway climate impacts at home and abroad.
The most important step Obama can take to restrict near-term global temperatures is to gain agreement for the phase out the man-made refrigerant chemicals hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs, under the Montreal Protocol treaty, which has already eliminated scores of other chemicals. Critically, Obama has already gained the support of China, India and well over 100 other nations, from small island states concerned about sea-level rise to every G-20 economy, though agreement later this year will require unanimity among all 197 Protocol countries.
Phasing out HFCs and substituting readily available replacement chemicals in the next two decades will prevent as much as 0.9 degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to leading experts. It could also catalyze improvements in the energy efficiency of air conditioners and other appliances that could avoid the equivalent of another 100 billion tons of CO2 by 2050, (about three years of current global emissions), a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds.
To be most effective, such an HFC phase out should be part of a broader strategy to cut the other ‘super pollutants’ — black carbon soot and methane — which are also far more potent greenhouse factors than CO2, but dissipate in the atmosphere quickly, so cutting them now can slow warming dramatically within a few decades. Taken together, phasing out HFCs by 2030, cutting global methane emissions by 50 percent, and black carbon by 90 percent — all achievable if we begin in earnest now — would cut projected warming by half between now and 2050, according top experts like Veerabhadran Ramanathan, distinguished professor of climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. Obama has already begun promulgating domestic rules to limit methane, with more likely to be announced around the State of the Union, but efforts to cut black carbon and methane internationally will require far more focus, including setting the stage for additional actions by the next president.
Obama must also use his last year to further push development of energy technologies needed to keep CO2 emissions lower now, and especially in the medium- to long-term. His proposal to double global clean energy research and development investments, the ‘Mission Innovation’ project, announced in Paris, while a step in the right direction, will require a willingness to sacrifice other final year budget priorities to gain this R&D funding from Republicans in Congress.
Private sector backing for such efforts is building, with major technology CEOs, like those on the American Energy Innovation Council, supportive of such public funding. Bill Gates and other top investors of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are pledging large investments to help bring these R&D advances to commercial viability and deployment, among other things.
Carbon capture and storage technologies also deserve a push from the Obama administration, especially a potential deal with Republicans for tax incentives for large-scale deployment in the United States. Republicans are likely to support a carefully constructed carbon storage tax package since it would allow more coal and natural gas to be used in a low emissions manner, while also producing low-cost enhanced oil recovery from older fields. The recent agreement to extend U.S. renewable energy tax credits in exchange for lifting America’s 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports provides a model for such a bipartisan deal.
Finally, the administration should accelerate its work with the world’s largest and fastest growing emitters, including China and India, without which global emissions and temperature growth cannot be addressed. The United States should pursue additional bilateral policy and technology agreements with these and other major economies, including on cutting black carbon soot, especially through the replacement of dirty diesel trucks and buses, and other major sources. Soot is a leading cause of air pollution that kills millions in the developed world each year, in addition to causing more than half of the warming in critical areas like the Tibetan Plateau glaciers and the Arctic.
The promise of Paris must be fulfilled through many different types of action, not just CO2 mitigation, and U.S. leadership remains indispensable. Even Republicans will increasingly need a credible place to land on the climate issues, or risk seeming utterly out of touch with growing concerns of the American and global public. For all these reasons, 2016 should be a year of climate action by the President, not simply one of resting on the laurels of Paris, and awaiting his successor.