Next Steps in Combatting Climate Change

This time of year is perfect for a classic American road trip. For many Americans the summer is a great time to hop in the car with family or friends and drive to see our nation’s spectacular national parks and historic sites. Trips like this, when I was young, sparked my lifelong passion for nature conservation and outdoor recreation.  Now, I want to make sure that future generations have the opportunity to experience the same freedom and beauty of our planet that I did. 

My love of nature and passion for protecting it led me to join the State Department last December, in part, to lead the U.S. government’s negotiations in two key areas in our fight against climate change: phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and reducing global airline emissions, both of which face important deadlines this fall.

Many environmental issues have a significant international component.  Water and air do not always abide by national borders and what affects one country can affect others. When we talk about preserving and protecting our planet, international cooperation and agreements are a vital part of the solution.

French President Francois Hollande, right, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, second right, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, left, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hold their hands up in celebration after the final conference at the COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, north of Paris. [AP Photo]

Many of you have seen the images of diplomats and negotiators cheering after we reached the text of a climate agreement in Paris in December 2015. Their contagious excitement came because they had concluded the most ambitious climate change agreement in history, which establishes a long-term, durable global framework to reduce global emissions. It’s essential that we maintain this global momentum on climate action.

One of the most effective next steps to take on climate is phasing down the global usage of HFCs. HFCs are potent greenhouse gases commonly used in cooling for things like air conditioners and refrigerators, where they are substitutes for chemicals that damage the ozone layer. Our primary tool to address this issue is the Montreal Protocol, which is widely regarded as the most successful environmental treaty.  Every country in the world has ratified it and it has successfully reduced worldwide usage of ozone depleting chemicals.  In November 2015, countries party to the Montreal Protocol met in Dubai and agreed to work towards an amendment in 2016 to phase down the worldwide use of HFCs. The Montreal Protocol worked to repair the ozone layer and we’re now building upon its success to combat climate change.

The United States, European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia and others are already taking action to regulate HFCs, pushing some of the world’s significant markets toward HFC phasedowns and showing that the alternative technologies are viable and already being deployed.  An amendment would solidify this market movement and, in keeping with the tradition of the Montreal Protocol, the transition would be gradual over time with developed countries already leading the way in early transitions to more climate-friendly alternatives.  This week, Parties -- including our own Secretary Kerry -- are gathered in Vienna for the next round of negotiations on this crucial amendment.  Significant progress in Vienna is needed to put us in reach of finalizing the HFC amendment in Kigali in October, at the next Meeting of the Parties.

NASA visualizes data of ozone concentrations over the southern hemisphere for each year from 1979-2013. Each image is the day of the year with the lowest concentration of ozone. A graph of the lowest ozone amount for each year is shown. There is no data from 1995. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Another big step for climate progress this year involves global civil aviation. Aviation accounts for less than two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions today but scientists expect this number to increase significantly in coming decades. In 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted the ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutral growth for the international aviation sector from 2020 onward.  There are already many tools available to help: new aircraft technology, sustainable alternative fuels, operational enhancements, and a CO2 standard for aircraft engines. 

However, in order to meet the goal of carbon neutral growth, airlines will need to purchase carbon offsets. How airlines purchase these offsets and how they get counted is part of an ongoing negotiation at ICAO, also to be completed this October. We need a common measure so everyone uses the same scale and same math to add up their emissions and also their offsets. ICAO’s ambitious efforts now will help the world for years to come.

Paris mobilized the international community’s support for action to combat climate change. Successful negotiations in the Montreal Protocol and ICAO would build on this momentum and deliver measurable reductions in global emissions and the effects of climate change, and help preserve our precious planet for generations to come.

About the Author: Jennifer A. Haverkamp is the U.S. Department of State’s Special Representative for Environment and Water Resources.

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Outside view of the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria. [Photo by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis]
July 20, 2016

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