At COP21 today, on International Human Rights Day, two issues have converged: How can we act quickly to mitigate climate change, while ensuring that we protect and enhance the rights of the world’s vulnerable people, who are already affected by climate change and pollution?

One avenue to do this quickly is available right now: By using our current technologies to reduce “short-lived climate pollutants”—the hydrofluorocarbons, methane, black carbon, and tropospheric ozone that are emitted via landfills and waste, agricultural production, and oil and gas—it is possible to reduce global temperature rise by 0.6°C by 2050, while saving up to 2.5 million lives by 2030. These pollutants contribute 45 percent of total global warming emissions, and contribute to the deaths of 7 million people per year through air pollution

At the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) High-Level Assembly Tuesday, more than 100 countries and non-state partners, including BSR, pledged to increase the scale of their actions to reduce these pollutants.

As California Governor Jerry Brown said during his opening remarks, the opportunity to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants is “important, beneficial, and immediate.” California recently made an ambitious pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions—including short-lived climate pollutants—by 50 percent in the next 15 years.

Bending the Curve of the Global Temperature Rise

Currently, if each country makes good on its national commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we will be able to reduce global temperature rise to 2.7°C. This represents significant progress, but it is still 0.7°C above the desired 2°C threshold. To “bend the curve” of global temperature rise and address this gap, we need to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and short-lived climate pollutants.

According to a recent study by the University of California, if we apply all current technologies to address short-lived climate pollutants, it’s possible reduce warming by as much as 0.6°C within 20 to 40 years. These efforts, which would pay off in the short term, would complement efforts to achieve carbon neutrality well before the end of the century. As Brown put it, addressing these pollutants “buys time for the world to decarbonize.”

Saving Lives, Improving Food Security

During his visit to Paris last week, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger insisted that now is the time to act on climate: “Thousands of people are dying from pollution,” he said in an interview with the Guardian. According to the World Health Organization, by reducing black carbon emissions from transport, it will be possible to avoid 2.5 million deaths by 2030.

Addressing short-lived climate pollutants pays off in other ways, too. For instance, black carbon, which affects temperatures, rainfall patterns, and river flow, impacts the agriculture industry. By reducing black carbon and methane emissions, it’s possible to avoid around 50 million tons in global crop losses every year by 2050. The loss of these crops impacts both food and economic security—to the tune of between US$12 billion and US$21 billion per year

How the Private Sector Can Act Now

The oil and gas sector has a significant opportunity to reduce black carbon and methane, which is emitted during gas flaring at oil production sites. Globally, oil and gas operations account for the second-greatest share (25 percent) of anthropogenic methane emissions. Industry projections are clear that methane emissions will continue to grow in the medium term.

The good news is that the sector has the technology to address methane leakage, which can reduce emissions and costs and increase efficiency. The CCAC’s Oil and Gas Methane Partnership is working with eight companies—BG-Group, BP, ENI, Pemex, PTT, Southwestern Energy, Statoil, and Total—to minimize methane emissions in their operations by surveying for, quantifying, and addressing the main methane emission sources. 

During a COP21 event BSR held Monday with the CCAC, EDF President Fred Krupp said he considers addressing short-lived climate pollutants to be the “biggest, cheapest, and quickest way to address climate change right now.” The three CEOs present at the event—Statoil’s Eldar Sætre, BP’s Bob Dudley, and BG-Group's Helge Lund—were unequivocal that reducing methane emissions makes good business sense. For Sætre, the role of the oil and gas industry is clear: “We will take an active role in shaping the future of energy, nothing less. We need to embrace low-carbon solutions as a business opportunity rather than as a threat to our industry.”

Other companies also have the opportunity to act. On December 4, the “Lima-Paris Action Agenda” day devoted to short-lived climate pollutants, air conditioning contractor UTC/Carrier committed to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, which enhances energy efficiency and reduces food loss in the cold food chain. The Coca-Cola Company also reiterated its commitments as part of Refrigerants, Naturally!, and Unilever reported on the actions and commitments of the Consumer Goods Forum, an industry network with a membership of more than 400 companies in 70 countries.

On Human Rights Day, in the midst of the COP21 climate talks, there is no better time for companies to make a commitment to reducing short-lived climate pollutants to address climate change and human health. In Krupp’s words, “There are lives at stake. Let’s get to work.”

In early 2016, BSR and the CCAC will release a series of reports on private-sector opportunities to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants.