Black Carbon: The Other Greenhouse Gas!

Black Carbon: The Other Greenhouse Gas! 

by John Bain

Ever see an eighteen-wheeler belching out smog and think, “That’s got to be bad for the environment”?

Indeed it is – and carbon dioxide has nothing to do with it.

There is, in fact, an entire world of non-CO2 greenhouse gases with various effects on the global climate. Gases such as methane and black carbon contribute 30% to 40% of the world’s global warming potential. The upside, though, is that these agents act on a very short term – weeks to months – as opposed to carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The two are among a group of greenhouse gases called SLCFs – short-lived climate forcers. In fact, “forcing” is the scientific term for the action of all greenhouse gases, including CO2 – they absorb radiation from the sun and retain it, “forcing” a global climate shift.

In the United States, diesel engines are the typical source of black carbon emissions. However, most black carbon comes from wood stoves in places like South Asia, where electric stoves are rare. In this area, it has been linked to around 400,000 deaths by suffocation.

It’s tragic, but the reason you probably haven’t heard about SLCFs is that black carbon pollution happens mostly in developing countries. Mitigating black carbon mostly has a positive effect in the area where the mitigation takes place (so, China or India) rather than worldwide.

However, that fact is also what makes black carbon a boon to environmentalists, in a strange way. Think global, act local, right? Black carbon mitigation could be a great first step to further conservation efforts, since it shows effects within weeks instead of within years.

Black carbon also benefits the environmental cause since it’s not called “carbon dioxide”, a contentious term capable of causing immediate political gridlock in the U.S. and elsewhere. Since the effects of cleaning up black carbon are so immediate, it can easily become something everyone agrees on.

If your interest is piqued, check out this recent NASA study showing how reducing SLCFs will change the world. Notice that most of the change will be in India – and that’s great, because the Indian government is introducing a program that will put 150 million safe stoves in Indian homes over the next decade.

Of course, all this comes with a caveat emptor: reducing SLCFs will have great effects in this decade and the next, but carbon dioxide remains the biggest threat for the coming century. The fact of the matter is that SCLF mitigation must be part of our long-term climate strategy, but not the main focus; news of black carbon means we should be doing more to fight climate change, not less.

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  John Bain is Good-b’s  senior Green Blogger and Associate Editor of Good-b. 

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