To curb climate change before the planet’s climatic system is committed to runaway global warming, we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon. Since fossil fuels are the cornerstone of economic systems and lifestyles around the world, the task presents a difficult collective challenge to achieve political, social, and technological change in a short timespan. The stakes are high: We need to act now and make significant progress within the next 10 years in order to have some ability to control our planetary fate. We’re already seeing early effects of warming across the globe, but soon, without dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions, we may reach a point of no return in which the melting Arctic will cease to function as a planetary cooling system and instead absorb more of the sun’s energy, accelerating the warming and releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. While the risks of entering a positive warming feedback loop that human society won’t be able to reverse are high, the potential rewards of the necessary social change are also enormous: The things we need to do to solve the climate crisis will also make the world a healthier, safer, more secure and equitable place.
The good news is that technologies for safer energy are many and promising; what we desperately need is the political will to replace the old technologies quickly and minimize fossil fuel use around the world. Three crucial global warming agents must be priorities for immediate action: carbon dioxide (CO2), black carbon, and methane.
Taking our cues from the scientific research of prominent climatologists such as NASA’s James Hansen, and echoing the calls to action of groups such as 350, the Center strongly believes we must reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million (ppm) as soon as possible, preventing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from reaching — as it’s projected to, if current emissions trends continue — a whopping 550 ppm by the middle of this century.
Because CO2, once emitted, can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, deep reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations will take some time to achieve, though we must begin emissions reductions immediately. But because of the rapid melting of the Arctic — a critically important tipping point with implications for the entire climate system — we also urgently need short-term solutions: quick ways to reduce warming. This means we have to attack global warming agents that are removed from the atmosphere more quickly. The two best candidates are black carbon and methane.
Black carbon is not a gas but a particulate — elemental carbon, or soot, emitted by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, of which the largest source in developed countries such as the United States is diesel fuel. Because of the short life span for black carbon emissions in the atmosphere (about four to seven days), we have an opportunity to make a huge impact on global warming by cutting black carbon now.
Only a small percentage of the black carbon that warms the Arctic is generated in the region — the rest is transported by wind currents from other places, primarily North America, Europe, and Asia. To reduce Arctic warming from black carbon, we must tackle within-Arctic sources including diesel generators and vehicles and emissions from ships — perhaps most importantly, by ensuring that emissions from these sources do not increase as industry seeks new opportunities in the thawing Arctic.
In the United States, the main sources of fossil-fuel soot are off-road vehicles, followed by on-road vehicles such as cars, buses and trucks, stack emissions, and lastly accidental spills or leaks. The good news: Black carbon emissions in the United States are already projected to decline by 42 percent from 2001 to 2020, primarily as a result of new diesel-vehicle regulations. We are fighting for the more stringent regulations we need not only to reduce warming in the Arctic, but also to protect public health as well. Globally, reducing black carbon will mean addressing northern hemisphere sources such as diesel engines in Europe and cooking fires in Asia.
In 2007, methane levels rose for the first time since 1998. Methane is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there’s far less of it in the atmosphere — about 1,800 parts per billion. When related climate effects are taken into account, methane’s overall climate impact is nearly half that of carbon dioxide.
Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, contains vast stores of carbon. Scientists are very worried that the 2007 methane spike was caused by the Arctic permafrost thawing, causing carbon to seep into the atmosphere in the form of methane — in large amounts — and further accelerating runaway global warming.
Methane is easy to capture and economically valuable, and according to EPA research there are literally millions of tons of methane reductions that could be achieved at a cost savings or no cost to the polluters. As a result, it has become a political football in plans to sell and trade emissions permits: Policymakers have shied away from regulating methane now so that these cheap and easy reductions can be available to grease the wheels of a cap and trade system later. But this is a tragic evasion: Methane, more than any other gas, needs to be dealt with immediately through strong regulation at all levels of government.
You can fight global warming — and often reduce expenses, as well — by sharply reducing your energy use. Critical steps to take:
• Pressure your representatives in Congress as well as state and local politicians. There’s no way around it: political will must be exerted at every level of government to bring about an energy revolution. We must use existing laws to limit greenhouse gases immediately, as well as pass new laws to achieve (1) a swift, short-term reduction of methane emissions and black carbon to stop the Arctic from melting; (2) a medium- and long-term goal of stabilizing the climate by reducing atmospheric CO2 to no more than 350 parts per million; and (3) a massive surge in innovation and widespread promotion of cleaner energy technologies to replace destructive fossil fuels.• Reform your driving habits to:
• Increase efficiency in the home by:
1. Drive as little as possible. Do your best to walk, bike, carpool, or use public transit whenever possible, and combine errands into geographic bundles to make fewer trips.
2. Keep your car in shape with regular tune-ups and tire inflations. Gas use nationwide would come down 2 percent if all Americans kept their tires inflated, which they don’t, and tune-ups can raise your fuel efficiency by 4 to 40 percent.
3. Choose a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Cars that average 20 miles per gallon emit about 50 tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime, whereas those that get 40 mpg emit half that much. So trade up as soon as possible for the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that meets your needs. Switch out your heavy compact sedan for a cleaner hybrid sedan or give up the gas-guzzling family SUV for a wagon, and save thousands on gas money as you reduce your carbon footprint. (You can comparison-shop for efficiency at www.fueleconomy.gov, using the site’s “Find and Compare Cars” feature.)
1. Replacing your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, which last 10 times as long. A compact fluorescent, though more expensive up front, will lower your energy bills by about $15 a year and keep significant amounts of CO2 out of the air.
2. Using energy-efficient appliances. When you buy refrigerators, washers and driers, or other household appliances, look for the Energy Star label, which identifies the most efficient appliances. Use the Energy Guide labels to compare model efficiency. Refrigerators are the biggest consumers of electricity in most homes, and new models use less than a quarter of the energy of models built 30 years ago; an upgrade could mean big energy and cost savings.
3. Making sure your house or apartment has adequate insulation; call your energy provider to see if it offers, or can refer you to a company that conducts, energy audits.
4. When possible, choose renewables for your energy supply itself. If your state allows you to pick your electricity supplier, use a Green-e-certified company that generates at least half its power from wind, solar, and other clean sources.
• Reduce your consumption of meat. Meat production is one of the main drivers of environmental degradation globally, and the crisis is rapidly growing worse.
• Offset your carbon footprint. It doesn’t compare with actually reducing the amount of energy you use, but buying offsets means you can add clean power to the country’s grid instead of power from fossil fuels. Find out how we did it, and how you can, at our Climate Neutral page.
• Join the Center. We need your help in the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions to protect the Earth’s plants, animals, and ecosystems as well as ourselves.
• Check out our Take-action Toolbox: Fight Global Warming to look for live action alerts and more ways you can help curb climate change, today.