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Black Carbon: Overlooked Warming Factor that can be Quickly Cleaned Up     Print Email
Wednesday, 19 August 2009

By now most world leaders have realized the dangers of climate change, and many have launched initiatives to limit carbon dioxide emissions that are the main cause of greenhouse gases and global warming. Because they are so big, they are challenging to contain. Alongside them, there are other smaller but important contributing factors that are relatively easy to curb but are too often overlooked by leaders looking at the big picture.

A key example of this category is “black carbon.” These are light-absorbing particles emitted from diesel engines, agricultural burning and factories. These particulates have a warming effect equal to a significant percentage of that of carbon dioxide, but that is enough to have a severely damaging impact on the world’s climate, partly because their fallout is geographically limited and therefore can drastically affect particularly vital regions. For example, the Greenland ice sheet, already rapidly declining for years, could be wiped out entirely by black carbon. As authors Rafe Pomerance and Arnold Cohen pointed out in the winter 2008 edition of European Affairs, “the complete loss of Greenland would raise world sea levels by seven meters, inundating the world’s densely populated coastal areas.”

The good news is that this form of pollution can be controlled relatively easily the authors told the European Institute and then confirmed in their European Affairs article. Their views have now been echoed in a longer article by other experts carried in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs due out this week. These authors concur in the view that while carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for centuries, possibly even millennia, black carbon only stays in the atmosphere for days or weeks. The accumulated carbon dioxide poses a daunting problem in terms of the time it will take to be eliminated from our atmosphere.

Moreover, a great deal of the black carbon emissions can be eliminated by existing technologies. , diesel particulate- filters on cars and trucks can reduce black carbon emissions by 90 percent, with only a small loss in efficiency.

Politically, black carbon has the “advantage” of being a pollutant that European nations and the U.S. can deal with on their own – without getting into the quarrel between Asia and the West about how to share the burden of tackling global warming by carbon constraints. Making a start on curbing black carbon would be a relatively cheap “smart” initiative for the leading industrial nations to garner some political credibility and international leverage ahead of the Copenhagen conference in December on climate change.