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The World Solved Acid Rain. We Can Also Solve Climate Change

The world feels like it’s being set alight; wildfires in Canada and Europe, floods in China, and a never-ending stream of recording-breaking heat waves have garnered1 numerous headlines.
The feeling that time is quickly running out is very real. And it’s easy to believe that the world cannot tackle big environmental problems. This sense of helplessness is something that I have personally battled for more than a decade. But that feeling is a barrier to action: Nothing has changed when we’ve called for action before, so why should we expect any different this time?
But our past efforts tell us there is hope. The world has solved large environmental problems that seemed unsurmountable at the time. In my role at Our World in Data, I’ve spent years looking at how these problems have evolved, and I think that it’s worth studying these issues, not only for hope, but to understand what went right and what can help us face today’s crises. An eye-opening example is acid rain; studying how the world tackled this geopolitically divisive problem can give us some insights into how we can tackle climate change today.
It has mostly slipped from the public conversation, but acid rain was the leading environmental problem of the 1990s. At one point, it was one of the biggest bilateral2 diplomatic issues between the United States and Canada.
Acid rain—precipitation with high levels of sulfuric or nitric acids—is mostly caused by sulfur3 dioxide, a gas that is produced when we burn coal. It had severe effects on ecosystems4. It dissolved old sculptures, stripped forests of their leaves, leached5 soils of their nutrients6, and polluted rivers and lakes. Emissions8 from the U.K. would blow over to Sweden and Norway; emissions from the U.S. would blow over to Canada. Just like climate change, it crossed borders, and no country could solve it on its own.
This is a classic game theory problem; outcomes don’t only depend on the actions of one country but on the actions of the others too. Countries will only act if they know that others are willing to do the same. This time, they did act collectively. Government officials signed international agreements, placed emissions limits on power plants and started to reduce coal burning. Interventions9 were incredibly effective. In Europe, sulfur dioxide emissions fell by 84 percent and in the U.S. by 90 percent. Some countries have reduced them by more than 98 percent.
We did something similar with the ozone10 layer. The ozone hole was a big coordination11 problem. No single country was responsible for the world’s emissions of ozone-depleting substances. So there was little upside and some downside to countries taking the lead on their own. They would spend money and implement12 unpopular environmental policies without making much of a dent13 in the global problem. The only way to cut emissions substantially was for many countries to join in. It relied on international collaboration14. Yet the world solved it. After countries signed the Montreal Protocol15, emissions of ozone-depleting substances fell by more than 99 percent.
What we learned from tackling acid rain and the ozone hole can be applied16 to tackling climate change overall.
First, the cost of technology really matters. The cost-benefit ratio of desulfurization technologies was key to solving acid rain. The cost of installing scrubbers was significant but not budget-breaking. If they had come at a huge cost, countries wouldn’t have made the switch.
Similarly, cheap low-carbon technologies are essential for climate change. Low-carbon technologies used to be expensive, but in the last decade the price of solar energy has fallen by more than 90 percent . The price of wind energy by more than 70 percent. Battery costs have tumbled by 98 percent since 1990, bringing the cost of electric cars down with them. Globally, one in every seven new cars sold is electric. In Europe, one in every five, and in China one in every three.
At the same time, countries are waking up to the potential costs of not moving to clean energy, whether in the form of climate damages—at home or overseas—or being tied to volatile17 fossil fuel markets.
Second, climate agreements and targets take time to evolve. Negotiations18 are long. The ozone hole and acid rain were not fixed19 with the first international agreements on the table. The initial targets were too modest to make a large enough difference. But over time, countries increased their ambitions, amended20 their agreements and reached for those higher goals.
This is a basic principle of the Paris climate agreement. Countries agreed to step up their commitments to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius21 or 2 degrees C. While this has been happening, it definitely hasn’t happened fast enough. The world is on track for an increase of around 2.6 degrees C by 2100. That’s extremely bad. But it’s still a degree lower than where we were heading in 2016. Governments have increased action and increased their target numbers too. And just like with acid rain or the ozone hole, they need to keep aiming higher. If every country fulfilled its pledges, the world would keep temperature rise to 2 degrees C. If they met their net-zero commitments on time, we could sneak22 below it.
Finally, the stance of elected officials matters more than their party affiliation23. Environmental issues do not have to be so politically divisive. Acid rain was a bipartisan divide in the U.S. under Ronald Reagan’s presidency24. But it wasn’t a Democrat25 who finally took action; it was his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush. Before taking office, Bush pledged to be the “environmental president,” a bold stance for many right-wing leaders today, but one that we need to see repeated if we are going to make and reach these loftier goals. In the U.K., there is strong public support for net-zero emissions even among the political right. Margaret Thatcher—arguably one of the U.K.’s most right-wing leaders ever—was one of the earliest to take climate change seriously.
Former German chancellor26 Angela Merkel is a modern example of a pro-climate conservative leader. A scientist by training, Merkel always acknowledged the threats of climate change, gaining the title of “climate chancellor.” In the late 1990s she led the first U.N. climate conferences and the Kyoto Protocol. In 2007, she convinced G8 leaders to set binding27 emission7 reduction targets. It's wrong to frame environmental problems as right-left wing issues. If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to overcome this divide.
Climate change is not the perfect parallel for the environmental problems we’ve solved before. It will be harder; we should be honest about that. It means rebuilding the energy, transport and food systems that underpin28 the modern world. It will involve every country, and almost every sector29. But change is happening, even if it doesn’t hit the headlines. To accelerate action, we need to have the expectation that things can move faster. That’s where past lessons come in; we should use them to understand that these expectations are not unrealistic. Change can happen quickly, but not on its own; we need to be the ones to drive it.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


1 garnered 60d1f073f04681f98098b8374f4a7693     
v.收集并(通常)贮藏(某物),取得,获得( garner的过去式和过去分词 )
  • Mr. Smith gradually garnered a national reputation as a financial expert. 史密斯先生逐渐赢得全国金融专家的声誉。 来自《简明英汉词典》
  • He has garnered extensive support for his proposals. 他的提议得到了广泛的支持。 来自辞典例句
2 bilateral dQGyW     
  • They have been negotiating a bilateral trade deal.他们一直在商谈一项双边贸易协定。
  • There was a wide gap between the views of the two statesmen on the bilateral cooperation.对双方合作的问题,两位政治家各自所持的看法差距甚大。
3 sulfur ps4wC     
  • Sulfur emissions from steel mills become acid rain.炼钢厂排放出的硫形成了酸雨。
  • Burning may produce sulfur oxides.燃烧可能会产生硫氧化物。
4 ecosystems 94cb0e40a815bea1157ac8aab9a5380d     
n.生态系统( ecosystem的名词复数 )
  • There are highly sensitive and delicately balanced ecosystems in the forest. 森林里有高度敏感、灵敏平衡的各种生态系统。 来自《简明英汉词典》
  • Madagascar's ecosystems range from rainforest to semi-desert. 马达加斯加生态系统类型多样,从雨林到半荒漠等不一而足。 来自辞典例句
5 leached 2a51e90e65eccfce6862c808dfa40a5a     
v.(将化学品、矿物质等)过滤( leach的过去式和过去分词 );(液体)过滤,滤去
  • They believe that the humic materials are leached from decaying plant materials. 他们认为腐植物料是从腐烂的植物体浸沥而来。 来自辞典例句
  • The concept holds that uranium is leached by groundwater from tuffeceous rocks. 该理论认为,来自凝灰岩的地下水淋蚀铀。 来自辞典例句
6 nutrients 6a1e1ed248a3ac49744c39cc962fb607     
n.(食品或化学品)营养物,营养品( nutrient的名词复数 )
  • a lack of essential nutrients 基本营养的缺乏
  • Nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. 营养素被吸收进血液。 来自《简明英汉词典》
7 emission vjnz4     
  • Rigorous measures will be taken to reduce the total pollutant emission.采取严格有力措施,降低污染物排放总量。
  • Finally,the way to effectively control particulate emission is pointed out.最后,指出有效降低颗粒排放的方向。
8 emissions 1a87f8769eb755734e056efecb5e2da9     
排放物( emission的名词复数 ); 散发物(尤指气体)
  • Most scientists accept that climate change is linked to carbon emissions. 大多数科学家都相信气候变化与排放的含碳气体有关。
  • Dangerous emissions radiate from plutonium. 危险的辐射物从钚放散出来。
9 interventions b4e9b73905db5b0213891229ce84fdd3     
n.介入,干涉,干预( intervention的名词复数 )
  • Economic analysis of government interventions deserves detailed discussion. 政府对经济的干预应该给予充分的论述。 来自辞典例句
  • The judge's frequent interventions made a mockery of justice. 法官的屡屡干预是对正义的践踏。 来自互联网
10 ozone omQzBE     
  • The ozone layer is a protective layer around the planet Earth.臭氧层是地球的保护层。
  • The capacity of ozone can adjust according of requirement.臭氧的产量可根据需要或调节。
11 coordination Ho8zt     
  • Gymnastics is a sport that requires a considerable level of coordination.体操是一项需要高协调性的运动。
  • The perfect coordination of the dancers and singers added a rhythmic charm to the performance.舞蹈演员和歌手们配合得很好,使演出更具魅力。
12 implement WcdzG     
  • Don't undertake a project unless you can implement it.不要承担一项计划,除非你能完成这项计划。
  • The best implement for digging a garden is a spade.在花园里挖土的最好工具是铁锹。
13 dent Bmcz9     
  • I don't know how it came about but I've got a dent in the rear of my car.我不知道是怎么回事,但我的汽车后部有了一个凹痕。
  • That dent is not big enough to be worth hammering out.那个凹陷不大,用不着把它锤平。
14 collaboration bW7yD     
  • The two companies are working in close collaboration each other.这两家公司密切合作。
  • He was shot for collaboration with the enemy.他因通敌而被枪毙了。
15 protocol nRQxG     
  • We must observe the correct protocol.我们必须遵守应有的礼仪。
  • The statesmen signed a protocol.那些政治家签了议定书。
16 applied Tz2zXA     
  • She plans to take a course in applied linguistics.她打算学习应用语言学课程。
  • This cream is best applied to the face at night.这种乳霜最好晚上擦脸用。
17 volatile tLQzQ     
  • With the markets being so volatile,investments are at great risk.由于市场那么变化不定,投资冒着很大的风险。
  • His character was weak and volatile.他这个人意志薄弱,喜怒无常。
18 negotiations af4b5f3e98e178dd3c4bac64b625ecd0     
协商( negotiation的名词复数 ); 谈判; 完成(难事); 通过
  • negotiations for a durable peace 为持久和平而进行的谈判
  • Negotiations have failed to establish any middle ground. 谈判未能达成任何妥协。
19 fixed JsKzzj     
  • Have you two fixed on a date for the wedding yet?你们俩选定婚期了吗?
  • Once the aim is fixed,we should not change it arbitrarily.目标一旦确定,我们就不应该随意改变。
20 Amended b2abcd9d0c12afefe22fd275996593e0     
adj. 修正的 动词amend的过去式和过去分词
  • He asked to see the amended version. 他要求看修订本。
  • He amended his speech by making some additions and deletions. 他对讲稿作了些增删修改。
21 Celsius AXRzl     
  • The temperature tonight will fall to seven degrees Celsius.今晚气温将下降到七摄氏度。
  • The maximum temperature in July may be 36 degrees Celsius.七月份最高温度可能达到36摄氏度。
22 sneak vr2yk     
  • He raised his spear and sneak forward.他提起长矛悄悄地前进。
  • I saw him sneak away from us.我看见他悄悄地从我们身边走开。
23 affiliation MKnya     
  • There is no affiliation between our organization and theirs,even though our names are similar.尽管两个组织的名称相似,但我们之间并没有关系。
  • The kidnappers had no affiliation with any militant group.这些绑架者与任何军事组织都没有紧密联系。
24 presidency J1HzD     
  • Roosevelt was elected four times to the presidency of the United States.罗斯福连续当选四届美国总统。
  • Two candidates are emerging as contestants for the presidency.两位候选人最终成为总统职位竞争者。
25 democrat Xmkzf     
  • The Democrat and the Public criticized each other.民主党人和共和党人互相攻击。
  • About two years later,he was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.大约两年后,他被民主党人杰米卡特击败。
26 chancellor aUAyA     
  • They submitted their reports to the Chancellor yesterday.他们昨天向财政大臣递交了报告。
  • He was regarded as the most successful Chancellor of modern times.他被认为是现代最成功的财政大臣。
27 binding 2yEzWb     
  • The contract was not signed and has no binding force. 合同没有签署因而没有约束力。
  • Both sides have agreed that the arbitration will be binding. 双方都赞同仲裁具有约束力。
28 underpin dkVws     
  • China needs regional stability to underpin its continued economic growth.中国需要地区稳定来巩固其持续的经济增长。
  • These developments are underpinned by solid progress in heavy industry.重工业的稳固发展为这些进展打下了基础。
29 sector yjczYn     
  • The export sector will aid the economic recovery. 出口产业将促进经济复苏。
  • The enemy have attacked the British sector.敌人已进攻英国防区。