What Comes First: Black Carbon or Carbon Dioxide?
Did you know that three billion people around the world use cooking stoves that cause up to 2 million premature deaths every year and contribute to global warming? Black carbon – or soot- is the big problem. In fact, it accounts for about 18% of all global warming emissions, second only to CO2. The beauty of eliminating black carbon is that it deals with multiple threats afflicting the developing world, from the long-term loss of water from disappearing glaciers to out-of-control child mortality to declining yields from agriculture. Read More
See also article about Black Carbon on the UK Met Office website by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor for the Sunday Times: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate-change/blog/leake
By George Black on Onearth.org (27 January 2012):
Three billion people around the world use cookstoves that cause up to 2 million premature deaths every year and contribute to global warming.
Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, I found myself thinking about black carbon — even though he never once used the phrase. Until recently, in fact, I doubt that many people had even heard of it.
Black carbon? Maybe it’s the stuff that’s left over on the barbecue after you’ve finished grilling the hot dogs?
But the reduction of black carbon emissions has suddenly moved to the center of the climate debate — and the beauty of it is that it’s unnecessary to utter the word climate at all, because getting rid of black carbon brings so many other benefits.
Even the egregious John Tierney, who can never resist a swipe at the advocates of a global carbon treaty, has come on board. In his regular column last week in the New York Times, Tierney was one of the many commentators to draw attention to an article about black carbon emissions by two dozen distinguished scientists from around the world in the January 13 issue of Science magazine.
So what is black carbon? The easy shorthand is that it’s soot, and in the developing world it’s largely the product of burning wood, animal dung, or crop residues in primitive cookstoves. It isn’t a greenhouse gas; it comes in the form of countless billions of tiny, dark particles that absorb sunlight — and that means that the net effect on atmospheric temperatures is much the same.
By depositing dark soot on white snow and ice and increasing their absorption of sunlight, black carbon accounts for a substantial amount of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets from the Arctic to the Himalayas.
In fact, it accounts for about 18 percent of all global warming emissions, second only to carbon dioxide.
The nastiest thing about this newcomer to the climate debate is that its effects are not limited to the warming of the atmosphere. Visit a poor household in South Asia or Africa, and you’ll see blackened kitchen walls and women choking over the smoke from their stoves. Go to the local clinic, and you’ll find children dying of preventable respiratory diseases. As the authors of the report in Science point out, getting rid of black carbon could save anything from 0.7 to 4.7 million lives a year. And that’s not all. The stoves that generate black carbon also generate ozone, a ground-level pollutant that causes billions of dollars in crop losses in the developing world.
The beauty of eliminating black carbon, then, is that it deals with multiple threats afflicting the developing world, from the long-term loss of water from disappearing glaciers to out-of-control child mortality to declining yields from agriculture. This is where Tierney has to get in his obligatory swipe: environmentalists don’t care about the huddled masses struggling to grow rice, because of their “lack of glamour.” The plight of the poor, he says, “is less newsworthy than negotiating a global treaty on carbon at a United Nations conference.”
Ah, those glamorous U.N. conferences on climate change! All those long, pre-dawn hours spent wrangling over every comma in resolutions taking note of this, and cognizant of that, and gravely concerned by the other, and calling for steps to facilitate the effective implementation of appropriate mechanisms to… whatever. Personally I’d rather have a root canal.
Tierney’s argument, aside from being spiteful, is based on totally false premises. First of all, why are we worried about climate change in the first place? Because we want the planet to remain habitable. In other words, we want people to have sufficient water, produce food in a sustainable way, and minimize the escalating threats to their health. Second, the decision to take action against black carbon emerged from the highest levels of the climate treaty crowd that Tierney so disdains.
At the most recent U.N. climate conference, in Durban, South Africa, in December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, declared that black carbon would be the centerpiece of the agency’s “fast-action agenda” against climate change.
The most ambitious effort in the world to curtail black carbon emissions is in India, and it grew directly out of conversations between one of the world’s leading climate experts, Veerabhadran Ramanathan (who is also one of the authors of the article in Science), and Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
It’s called Project Surya (the word surya means sunlight in Hindi), and it involves the replacement of traditional mud stoves with clean-burning stoves. (I went to see the project just a couple of days after meeting with Pachauri in New Delhi last November, and I’ll be writing more about it in the next issue of OnEarth magazine.)
Ramanathan’s reasons for launching Project Surya, and Pachauri’s enthusiasm for working with him, were twofold. One, Ramanathan is a world-class climate scientist who saw a way of sidestepping the obstacles to a global carbon treaty. (And because black carbon only remains in the atmosphere for a matter of days — CO2 lingers for more than 100 years — getting rid of it brings almost instant results. Two, he’d been haunted since childhood by the image of his grandmother coughing and wheezing over the dung stove in the smoke-blackened kitchen of the family home in South India. Slowing climate change and protecting public health were inseparable goals for him, in other words.
While the president never used the words black carbon on Tuesday night, two things brought it to mind: first, his acknowledgment that, “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change,” and second, the moment when the camera panned briefly across the grim visage of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the most obdurate of all climate deniers.
The beauty of eliminating black carbon is that it can bring a smile even to Inhofe’s face. Because it’s a local matter, and has such obvious humanitarian benefits, it avoids the political third rail of a carbon treaty at the U.N. and legislation in Washington. Surprising as it may seem, Inhofe was one of the co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill in 2009 (on Earth Day, no less!) directing the EPA to study the impact of black carbon emissions on public health and global warming.
So does it matter what words we use? Public health or climate change? Cynics or purists will probably say it does: that talking about dying babies in Asia and Africa is a weasely cop-out, an act of political surrender, an evasion of our responsibility to educate the public about the coming apocalypse. But surely it’s the results that count, and we need to buy as much time as we can to bear down on the ultimate problem of rallying the public, and the world, once and for all against CO2. Attacking black carbon does that. Public health, climate change: to me, the rose, by either name, smells just as sweet.
George Black, OnEarth’s executive editor, has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His next book, Empire of Shadows, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2012, is on the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone.