- Working Paper
In the effort to understand and address global climate change, most analysis has focused on rapidly rising emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and options for reducing them. Indeed, carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion, is the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. However, other greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide, and a number of industrial-process gases also are important contributors to climate change. From both an environmental and an economic standpoint, effective climate strategies should address both carbon dioxide and these other greenhouse gases.
Non-CO2 gases account for 17 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and a much larger percentage in developing countries such as India and Brazil. In addition, a host of local and regional air pollutant emissions interact in the atmosphere’s complex chemistry to produce either additional warming or cooling effects. Understanding how these gases interact—and how to craft policies that address a range of environmental impacts—is vital to addressing both local and global environmental concerns.
In this report, authors John Reilly, Henry Jacoby, and Ronald Prinn of M.I.T. unravel some of the complexities associated with analyzing the impacts of these multiple gases and opportunities for reducing them. Emissions originate from a wide range of sectors and practices. Accurate calculation of emissions and emission reductions is easier for some sources than for others. For policy purposes, various greenhouse gases are compared on the basis of “global warming potentials,” which are based on the atmospheric lifetime of each gas and its ability to trap heat. However, these do not yet accurately capture the climatic effects of all the substances contributing to climate change and so must be used with some caution. While scientists have recognized the various roles of non-CO2 gases and other substances that contribute to climate change for some time, only recently have the various pieces of the puzzle been fit together to provide a more complete picture of the critical role these gases can play in a cost-effective strategy to address climate change.
Using M.I.T.’s general equilibrium model, the authors demonstrate that including all greenhouse gases in a moderate emissions reduction strategy not only increases the overall amount of emissions reductions, but also reduces the overall cost of mitigation: a win-win strategy. In fact, due to the high potency of the non-CO2 gases and the current lack of economic incentives, this analysis concludes that control of these gases is especially important and cost-effective in the near term. The policy implications are clear: any attempt to curb warming should include efforts to reduce both CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases.