UNITED NATIONS-Good news on the environmental front is rarely forthcoming. Instead, nearly every credible, science-based report foretells of an ever-closer environmental cataclysm, and for good reason. Given all this, today’s report from the UN Environment Program is a welcome sign.

According to UNEP, there are significant ways in which, if given political will, we can make relatively quick progress towards reversing global warming by addressing all of the greenhouse gases being produced, and not simply carbon dioxide (CO2).

The program cited scientific studies estimating that about 50 percent “of the emissions causing global warming in the 21st century are from non-CO2 pollutants, ranging from black carbon and low-level ozone to methane and nitrogen compounds.” Unless their emissions are checked, these pollutants will only add to the global warming under way.

While none of this seems like cheerful information, Achim Steiner, UN Under-secretary General and Executive Director of UNEP explained, “While carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, some of these other pollutants, such as black carbon and ozone, have relatively short lives, in terms of days, weeks, months or years.”

The exact effects on the climate of most of these pollutants is not yet fully understood, but there is enough understanding for action, both to turn back the tide of global warming and to reverse other harmful effects. For example, tropospheric ozone (ozone that is within 9.5 miles of the surface and mainly human-caused, as opposed to higher level ozone that protects the earth from harmful ultra-violet rays) has already been identified as a major greenhouse gas-and it harms humans and crops.

On top of contributing anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of the amount of warming caused by CO2, this form of ozone is estimated to cause the loss of $5 billion dollars yearly of crops in China, Japan and Korea. According to MIT, five percent of cereal crops in the U.S. are lost because of this ozone are lost. By 2100, “crop yields globally could be cut by forty percent.”

Smog, tropospheric ozone under another name, is responsible for up to a fifth of all summer respiratory problem-related hospital visits in the northeast U.S.

Black carbon might contribute to global warming about 50 percent as much as CO2, and also causes nearly 2 million deaths per year, simply as a result of exposure.

By focusing on all these gases, such as black carbon, low-level ozone and others, as well as carbon dioxide itself in the fight against global warming, “development strategies that are both more effective and less costly can be developed,” said Drew Shindell, a NASA climatologist and Columbia University lecturer.

A high-level climate change conference is to take place, starting December 6, in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, it is hoped that government officials will created a new treaty something to replace and extend the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire. All respected scientists agree that it is necessary to dramatically reduce the number of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere within the next few decades, lest a global “tipping point” be reached, after which environmental destruction would rapidly accelerate, causing catastrophe of extreme proportions, including rapid ocean rise, mass extinctions (some scientists have speculated that up to two-thirds of all species could die out in the next century if nothing is done) and other such horrors.

The international community’s goal, said Steiner, “must be to seal a convincing deal” in Copenhagen.” This necessitates considerable political will, but American environmentalists have said this is much more likely that stronger political will may be found in Copenhagen, given the election of Barack Obama and his administration’s avowed stronger stance on environmental policies. The U.S. never signed the Kyoto Protocol, leaving it relatively ineffective.

By moving the conversation more towards dealing with all of the greenhouse gases, it is also likely that solutions will be more easily found.

According to Shindell, “Fast action across a broad front could thus deliver some quick wins on health, food security and wider environmental concerns while also making important contributions to advancing the climate change challenge and the achievement of the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals.”

 

 


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