For the rest of this week over 100 global leaders, and more countries, converge on Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. As of Tuesday a negotiated text was released which so far is receiving dismal reviews as watered down and lacking in any concrete commitments or timetables for outcomes. If the meeting is considered a failure, or results only in a laundry list of promises, who is to blame? Can anything be done to salvage this global opportunity?
Already the finger pointing has begun. Some are blaming the leaders who didn’t attend, including President Obama, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister Cameron of the U.K. Others are blaming Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. establishment for not pushing harder on an aggressive agenda. And many others will fault the Brazilians, who as the host, have relatively greater authority at the meeting and shaped the final negotiated text.
While other parties can comfortably deny their responsibility for one reason or another, Brazil is stuck. Like the Danes, who hosted a critical U.N. climate summit in 2009 that didn’t live up to expectations — whether it’s reasonable or not to blame them — Brazil will be forever saddled with the perception of this week’s outcome.
However the outcome of this meeting is eventually received, the truth is Brazil likely wasn’t able to get anything out of the meeting that the parties weren’t prepared to do. But they could show clearer leadership this week by reversing their position on the single biggest action that could be taken today to reduce greenhouse pollutants and cut in half the rate of global warming for the next 30 to 40 years.
Starting this week the Brazilian government should aggressively get behind efforts to reduce the package of climate warming pollutants other than carbon dioxide.
These pollutants include factory-made hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used as refrigerants and to make insulating foams, methane that leaks from landfills and oil and gas production, including fracking, and black carbon soot from dirty diesels, brick kilns, coke ovens, and wood and dung cooking fires still used by nearly half of the world. Together, they are responsible for 40 percent or more of global warming, and even more in critical places like the Arctic and Himalayas.
Already, some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries of the world, including the Federated States of Micronesia, have taken up this cause, as have some of the most powerful and resilient, like the United States. Because these non-CO2 climate pollutants wash out of the atmosphere in a matter of days to a decade and a half when you stop emitting them, almost all of the heat they are trapping disappears quickly, along with their impacts.Cutting these climate pollutants also provides powerful benefits for people.
Reducing black carbon, including from cooking fires, saves many millions of lives a year, mostly women and children. Reducing methane, which catalyzes the formation of damaging ozone in the lower atmosphere, improves crop yields and protects forests.
For three years now, the U.S., Canada and Mexico, along with Micronesia and other low-lying islands, have pushed for a phase out of HFCs under the successful Montreal Protocol. For three years, Brazil, China, and India have been the main stumbling blocks to achieving this phase out. Brazil doesn’t benefit from producing HFCs and at this point seems to only be following the lead of China and India.
The Montreal Protocol has already eliminated nearly 100 chemicals just like HFCs, and never fails to do its job. It could eliminate one of the six greenhouses by ensuring that only HFCs with very low climate impact are manufactured. Phasing out HFCs is the single biggest climate prize available in the next few years. It is one of the few strategies for protecting the most vulnerable peoples and places and delivering climate justice now.
More help is on the way. In addition to fast action to reduce HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, and the U.S., along with the U.N. Environment Program, launched last February a new Climate and Clean Air Coalition to reduce these same short-lived greenhouse pollutants. They have now been joined by all G8 partners, as well as Nigeria, Columbia, Norway, and the World Bank. This coalition is poised to become a major force in climate protection.
The parties in Rio have tentatively agreed “to support a gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of HFCs” which may be adopted on Friday by heads of government. While an improvement this agreement still provides no roadmap to get there.
Brazil should use their remaining time in the spotlight this week to drop its opposition phasing out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, and to join the new coalition to reduce HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants. This would send a signal that, whatever the outcome of Rio, Brazil is prepared to move forward where progress can be made now and fast. This would be a success.
Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainability. Light is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University.This piece was originally published at The Hill’s Congress Blog and was reprinted with permission.