“Black Carbon” Offers Partial Quick Fix – Without Waiting for Global Treaty on CO2     Print Email

A controversial new paper by climate scientists says that more effective immediate remedies against climate change can be found in tackling specific small warming agents other than CO2 – for example, black carbon. These particles – basically, soot – are emitted from incomplete burning of fossil fuels, mainly in diesel engines and wood. As light-absorbing specks (for example, on snow and ice in the Arctic), they darken the white reflective surface, absorbing more solar energy.

According to the report, this problem constitutes one of the most important problems after CO2 in aggravating the greenhouse effect and, importantly, it is amenable to solutions with short-term fixes that do not require big international accords.

These light-absorbing particles are said to be the most important man-made warming agent after carbon dioxide and remain in the atmosphere for weeks, darkening snow so that more solar energy is absorbed. According to the report, called the Hartwell Paper, “climate policy has, until now, focused on carbon dioxide primarily, and even to the exclusion of other human influences on the climate system.”

In making this point, the new report echoes a 2009 article in European Affairs saying that black carbon was “relatively easy to curb but was too often overlooked by leaders looking at the big picture.” The article, by Rafe Pomerance and Armond Cohen was adapted from a presentation to a European Institute seminar on “The Arctic: The Implications of Maritime Policies, Climate Change and the Law of the Sea Treaty.”

Now, the group of independent analysts and economists who authored the new report are following the same line of thinking and urging a radical new approach to climate policy. Until now, they say, policy has focused primarily on carbon dioxide, to the exclusion of other influences on the climate system. Their message is clear: the negative effects of climate change can be markedly reduced by "politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic" policies.

This focus reflects a wider view among researchers hat cleaning up black carbon production could be the quickest way of curbing warming. The good news is that this form of pollution can be controlled easily through targeted and enforced regulation. It fits a new post-Copenhagen trend in climate debates that favors pragmatic action over new treaty targets – as discussed by European Affairs.

"The Hartwell paper:A New Direction for Climate Policy after the Clash of 2009" proposed a more radical conclusion: that the prevailing approach, which concentrates on a global solution to the global problem of CO2 -- should be replaced by more targeted, quickly attainable measures to mitigate the impact of climate degradation. Many prominent activists disagree strongly with the thrust of the new report, which was largely financed by Japanese industry. “The paper's focus away from CO2 is misguided, short-sighted and probably wrong,” said Bill Hare from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

In the European Affairs article, the authors took the view that long-term negotiations on CO2 limits could proceed alongside immediate action on discrete issues such as black carbon. This problem, they said, “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.” That dispute was the basic stumbling block on which the Copenhagen conference foundered.