09/16/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Short-Lived Climate Pollutants: Three Truths to Save the Climate

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In early 2014 the Government of Bangladesh gave its brick kiln owners an ultimatum: Convert to clean, modern technologies for brick production by July of this year or face tough legal action.

Brick kilns are one of the major sources of black carbon pollution in the world. In Bangladesh, black carbon from the nearly 7,000 kilns in the country was hurting pollination for the vast mango crop in the north, as well as the rice crop. It was harming human health. And it contributed to the climate change that has been raising average temperatures in the country, particularly over the last two decades. Kilns in Bangladesh produce some 20 billion bricks every year, but about 4,000 of the kilns used old and polluting technologies, and almost all used coal as a fuel.

Bangladesh's stand against pollution from the brick kiln industry began with the personal commitment of one of the co-authors of this blog post, Anwar Hossain Manju, to do something about the problem. He saw first-hand how pollution was clogging the air and harming people's health and couldn't let this stand. Lena Ek, the other co-author, who is from Sweden, has initiated a black carbon inventory through the Nordic Council to determine where black carbon emissions need to be reduced in all five Nordic countries. Both Sweden and Bangladesh were founding partners of the global phenomenon, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.

With some grumbling from kiln owners, but also with the help of a $50 million fund provided by the government along with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the UN Development Program, modernization of the Bangladesh brick sector is on track. And it illustrates an encouraging trend: Countries are finally beginning to get control of the problem of short-lived climate pollutants.

These pollutants live in the atmosphere for a relatively short time -- a few days to a few decades -- but the damage they do to health, agriculture, ecosystems and climate is large. The main short-lived climate pollutants are black carbon, methane, some of the hydrofluorocarbons (known as HFCs and used mainly in the refrigeration and cooling industry, with their use growing at a high rate) and tropospheric, or ground-level, ozone. Controlling emissions of these pollutants or their precursors could roughly halve projected warming over the next few decades while saving millions of lives and increasing crop yields by tens of millions of tons annually.

Countries that have made progress against short-lived climate pollutants are finding that success involves at least three basic truths:

High-level political involvement is necessary. Strong dedication from high government officials, such as the co-authors of this blog post, is key to the success of the battle against short-lived climate pollutants.

  1. This is to take nothing away from the dedication and hard work on every level in many governments as well as NGOs and corporations to find ways to reduce short-lived climate pollutants. But, frankly, without high-level government support, we believe much of it would go to waste. Fortunately, many ministers are now getting involved.
  2. It's not enough to talk a good game. Action is necessary. Efforts against short-lived climate pollutants are underway not only in brick production but also in municipal solid waste (a growing international network of cities are helping each other to get control of methane and black carbon emissions), diesel fuel (interest is growing in green freight programs, with a global program ready to launch at the UN Climate Summit in New York), oil and gas production (companies and governments are joining together at the climate summit in a partnership to reduce methane emissions) and other sectors. The world is impatient with talk about doing something about climate. It's time to act. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition calls itself the Coalition of the Working. It has caught the spirit of the times.
  3. Protecting the climate is a good argument for doing something. But there are other arguments as well. Research shows that reducing short-lived climate pollutants can slow earth's temperature rise by as much as 0.6 degrees C by 2050, a significant contribution to staying below 2 degrees C target. But benefits go beyond climate. In a recent study from the World Health Organization, black carbon from sources such as diesel engines, open burning of waste and domestic cook stoves was shown to be a major factor in the deaths of some seven million people in 2012. And methane, which is emitted from sources ranging from agriculture (the biggest emitter) to oil and gas production to municipal solid waste dumps, is a precursor to tropospheric ozone, or smog, as well as a powerful climate "forcer." Reducing short-lived climate pollutants will also make development more sustainable and increase economic opportunities (witness the reshaped brick kiln industry, making way for new, cleaner, more efficient technologies).

While we work to reduce the long-term influence of carbon dioxide on earth's temperature and climate, we also need to pay attention to the short-lived pollutants. The lives and livelihoods of millions of people will benefit.

This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (to be held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.