Why There’s No Quick Fix for Climate Change

Scientists warn that cutting emissions of powerful but short-lived greenhouse gases won’t stop global warming.

(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Nov 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Think getting rid of wood-burning stoves is an easy way to slow climate change? How about putting tight regulations on soot-spewing coal power plants or better exhaust systems on dirty diesel engines?

Think again, says a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists concluded there’s no “quick fix” to climate change, and reducing other greenhouse gases without limiting carbon dioxide emissions won’t do the trick.

The findings bring new skepticism to the idea that reducing emissions of non-C02 gases and air pollutants could help slow the Earth’s rising temperatures. That’s bad news for politicians who hope that eliminating short-lived climate pollutants will delay the need for the international community to institute carbon-cutting measures on a global scale.

“Hopes that cutting other emissions would do a large part of the job now turn out to be misguided,” John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “Our study provides new scientific evidence that decision makers need to make their choices for CO2 reductions.”

Researchers looked at both emissions from carbon dioxide and “short-lived climate forcers” (SLCFs) such as methane and black carbonsootspewed by diesel vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and cows.

Carbon dioxide and SLCFs are often emitted from the same sources, but reduction efforts frequently target only the SLCFs without capturing C02. Car exhaust improvements, clean-burning stoves, and a reduction in the amount of meat humans consume can all help keep the air cleaner but won’t keep the earth much cooler.

The scientists found that if the average global temperature rose less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, short-term measures to reduce SLCF would have only a minor influence on the long-term rise in temperatures.

That’s because SLCFs only remain in the atmosphere for a short amount of time—often less than a decade—while carbon dioxide can stay trapped in the air for thousands of years.

“Stabilizing climate at any temperature means that, at some point, global CO2 emissions have to become zero,” said International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis researcher Joeri Rogelj in a statement. “Although near-term action on short-lived climate forcers can help reduce warming in the coming decades and also provides other societal benefits, such as cleaner air, it will not buy us time for delaying the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions which are required to stabilize the climate at safe levels.”

The best plan? Make sure emission reduction efforts target both long-term and short-term greenhouse gases.

“The new study highlights the critical importance of integrated approaches to problems such as climate change, air pollution, and energy policy,” said Rogelj.