A recent New York Times article by John Broder described the emergence of a new climate initiative spearheaded by the United States (with Canada!) that is designed to address climate change by expressly looking beyond carbon dioxide. The US is putting up $12 million and Canada $3 million to kickstart a voluntary mulitlateral program to address black soot (which alters the reflective capacity of ice, making it absorb more solar radiation) and methane and HFCs (powerful greenhouse gases). The program is designed to encourage and provide resources for developing countries to address these pollutants and raise awareness of these contibutors to global warming.
This is a noteworthy development for a couple of reasons. As the Times article reports, addressing these three kinds of pollutants can have a large impact on global warming (30-40% is the estimate in the article) and a number of technical fixes are available for addressing these issues. These fixes are attractive because they are less politically fraught than addressing carbon dioxide–for instance addressing soot has huge health benefits. This means that an effective program to deal with these pollutants could have a larger and quicker impact on climate change than anything likely to come out of the UNFCCC process in the next 5 years or more.
It is also noteworthy as another example of the expanding experimental governance approach. This is expressly not a treaty negotiation with targets and timelines for reducing soot, methane, and HFCs with enforcement mechanisms to back it up. It is a voluntary multilateral program that will use carrots to get countries involved in addressing these pollutants. Like transnational municipal networks, provincial-state initiatives in carbon markets, and NGO-corporate alliances that have proliferated in the last decade, this new initiative looks to respond to climate change outside the UN process, across borders, using new governance mechanisms (or old mechanisms in new ways).
This endgers both hopes and worries. On the hopeful side, experiments like this, especially at the multilateral level and involving the US, can move quickly on a major part of the climate change problem without getting bogged down in the making of an international treaty. In addition, this initiative contributes to the expansion of what counts as responding to climate change–moving beyond an exclusive focus on carbon dioxide emissions reductions and legally binding treaties. Climate change needs to be attacked from multiple angles and the ultimate goal needs to be transformation of the energy system and economy away from fossil fuel dependence. Expanding the response is a move in the right direction.
Of course, this kind of climate governance experiment–voluntary action–is not a pancea and raises important questions about effectiveness. Will the carrots be enough to get buy in and can the program reach its goals outside the context of binding international legal instruments? Time will tell.
This is a positive move in a political context where good news on the climate front is hard to come by. It is certainly an experiment that bears watching.