Politics of Poverty

Thinking outside the carbon box

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Virginia Ñuñonca Ccallo walks through her fields in the highlands of Peru. (Photo: Percy Ramírez / Oxfam America)

Carbon dioxide emissions require our attention, but we can’t afford to ignore the development and climate benefits from also reducing non-CO2 pollutants.

It’s now well-established that carbon reduction solutions, critical to combatting climate change, can also provide significant social and economic benefits. But governments, financial institutions, and development organizations are leaving opportunities on the table if they don’t also reduce non-carbon pollution—and in particular, short-lived climate pollutants.

Wait, what?

I said the same thing when I joined Oxfam America’s climate team a few weeks ago. But here’s what I’ve learned. First, short-lived climate pollutants—or SLCPs—come from sources as diverse as natural gas and oil systems, air conditioning, diesel engines, and cow burps. So despite having a name that isn’t well-known or PR-friendly, SLCPs are all around us and have a tremendous impact on the air we breathe, the food we grow, and other aspects of daily life.

Source: Climate and Clean Air Coalition – http://www.ccacoalition.org/en/science-resources

Second, as their “short-lived” name implies, they don’t stay in the atmosphere very long compared to carbon dioxide—just days to a decade or so depending on which pollutant you’re talking about. However, these pollutants are tens to thousands of times more potent than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide and consequently have a particularly important role in the near-term warming of our planet. Indeed, SLCPs are responsible for nearly half of human-caused global warming since the start of the industrial age. Therefore fast action to reduce them—alongside efforts to transform societies to be low-carbon and resilient—is a necessity to reduce the risks of catastrophic climate change.

Third, reducing SLCPs can produce critical development benefits – benefits that can be harvested now. Cost-effective mitigation technologies exist for every SLCP and the benefits of SLCP mitigation can add up quickly. At a global level, studies show that by 2030 SLCP reductions could help avoid millions of premature deaths through improved air quality and decrease yield losses of four staple crops by tens of millions of metric tons a year, enhancing global food security.

Recently, there have been some positive signs of more concerted action on SLCPs. For example, at the G7 summit, country leaders recognized “the importance of mitigating emissions of short-lived climate pollutants…to help slow the rate of near-term warming.” And several countries included SLCPs as part of their climate change plans submitted to the UN. But arguably the win-win narrative is still not reaching policymakers. We need to move faster and we need more advocates, including Oxfam, to help move them.

That leaves me with a number of questions: What are the right messages and metrics to help countries link their development and climate agendas and prioritize SLCP reductions as a means to achieve both? How can we mobilize sufficient finance for SLCP action? Are there innovative partnerships—for example with the health, aid effectiveness, or energy communities—to be had?

I don’t have the answers yet, but as the hard work of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change begins in earnest, I am eager to show how SLCP reductions can link development and climate agendas and to collaborate on creative solutions for us all.

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