A new World Bank report calls for the reduction of shorter-lived pollutants, such as soot and methane, that could slow the pace of climate change and save lives.
A warmer planet creates the conditions for more intense and extreme weather, like the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines last week, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
“This is not going to be a one off event," said Rachel Kyte, vice president for Sustainable Development at the World Bank. "The intensity and frequency of storms as a result of climate change is very clear from the climate science and the evidence and is something that many countries will have to prepare for.”
The World Bank's new report, On Thin Ice, deals with the cryosphere, the planet's perpetually frozen places: the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Andes and the Himalayas.
There, temperatures are rising at more than twice the global rate. Glaciers are receding, ice sheets are melting and the permafrost is thawing.
“We’re seeing catastrophic change potentially in these regions," Kyte said. "If the ice of the Himalayas disappears, there are billions of people that depend on that ice cap for water and for livelihoods, and so we need to worry a lot about the amount of black carbon and methane that we’re putting up into the atmosphere.”
While most attention is focused on carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for millennia, the World Bank report calls for reducing shorter-lived pollutants.
Methane - from livestock, mining operations and landfills - dissipates after about 12 years. Black carbon, or soot, from open-fire cook stoves stays in the air for just days or weeks. Kyte says they speed up warming, and acting quickly to reduce them can lessen the burden they cause.
“Six million people today die every year from outdoor and indoor air pollution," she said. "So if we were to change cooking methods, if we were to clean up emissions from old cars and from diesel engines, we could save six million lives and we could slow the rate at which climate change is coming.”
Those actions and others, like reducing open field and forest burning and capturing gas from landfills, can buy time for nations to adapt. Scientists agree that the planet is heading for a two-degree Celsius warming above pre-industrial times by 2020, a threshold that raises the risk of more severe weather and rising seas.
Representatives from 192 countries meeting in Warsaw, Poland, this week are taking steps to craft a United Nations treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate agreement that expired last year. Talks are expected to lead to a new treaty by 2015, and Kyte advises the negotiators to take note.
“While we negotiate and while we deal with the really difficult political economy, of who is going to agree to do what, there are so many things that we can be doing that are affordable, that are achievable, and that if they happen and we start to see the change, they will build confidence,” she said.
Kyte is encouraged by a growing coalition, which includes the United States, Arctic nations, and quickly industrializing African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, aimed at addressing short-term climate pollutants.
“Those governments coming together with institutions like ourselves, the United Nations Environment Program, the International Cryosphere Association, but then also with civil society and the private sector saying, ‘We don’t have to wait for an international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. We can take action now on black carbon. We can take action now on methane, and we have a measurable impact in a very short period of time,'” she said.
The World Bank and the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative will present its report, On Thin Ice, at the U.N. climate change meeting in Warsaw.