Losing time, not buying time

Control of methane, soot, and other short-lived climate-forcing agents has often been described as a cheap way to "buy time" to get carbon dioxide emissions under control. But is it really?

Expectations for the outcome of the Cancun climate talks seem to be running low, and the suggestion has emerged that maybe we should forget about controlling CO2 emissions for now, and instead do something with short lived climate forcing agents like methane or soot. This is often described as "buying time" to put CO2 emissions controls into place. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Ramanathan and Victor write:

"Reducing soot and the other short-lived pollutants would not stop global warming, but it would buy time, perhaps a few decades, for the world to put in place more costly efforts to regulate carbon dioxide." — Ramanathan and Victor

The idea that aggressive early action to control short-lived climate forcing "buys time" to do something about CO2 has often been pushed in the past, e.g. in various newsletters and press releases associated with the UNEP Atmospheric Brown Cloud program, for example

"The BC reduction proposal is not proposed as an alternative to CO2 reduction. At best, it is a short term measure to buy a decade or two of time for implementing CO2 emission reduction strategies." — Ramanathan, writing in the UNEP Black Carbon Newsletter.

To be fair, it should be acknowledged that such pleas for more attention to short-lived climate forcing are almost invariably accompanied by a salutary reminder that it is really CO2 that needs to be gotten under control, as in the quote above. Achim Steiner, writing in the same issue of the Black Carbon Newsletter writes "Paying attention to black carbon should not distract people from the real issue at hand, carbon dioxide." A similar sentiment is expressed in the Ramanathan and Victor op-ed. While emphasizing the central importance of CO2, Penner et al. argue that "…to provide short-term relief from climate warming, the short-lived compounds that induce warming need to be brought under control within a timescale of a few decades." (They also make the intriguing suggestion that doing so might provide a global experiment that could help constrain climate sensitivity.) Writing in Science, Stacy Jackson concludes that "… a focus on CO2 may prove ineffective in the near term without comparable attention to pollutants with shorter lifetimes"

All of this is well-intentioned stuff, none of it denies the central importance of CO2, and I’m sure there are many benefits to be had from reducing soot emissions sooner rather than later. Given the large agricultural component of methane emissions, keeping these emissions from growing in the face of a the need to feed a growing number of people is a serious challenge that must ultimately be met. But still, these proposals tend to convey the impression that dealing with the short-lived forcings now will in some way make it easier to deal with CO2 later, and that’s wrong. In this post, I will explain why.

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