Cutting Climate Change’s Gordian Knot

Black carbon, commonly known as soot, a byproduct of incomplete combustion, is a major contributor to global warming. It also can have significant, deleterious effects on one’s health. Now, several environmental groups are asking the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate black carbon under the Clean Water Act on the grounds that it affects sea ice and glaciers. While this proposal may have little chance of success, climate expert John C. Topping Jr. notes that it is only one of many efforts around the world to reduce black carbon. Building cleaner cooking stoves in the developing world and retrofitting jeepneys, a modified jeep commonly used for public transportation in the Philippines, are some possibilities. But the hurdle remains that there are few incentives to reduce black carbon emissions because they are excluded from many carbon trading programs, like the one in Europe. An Australian project in the Philippines to retrofit jeepneys with cleaner-burning engines in exchange for carbon credits is an interesting initiative. Climate negotiators have an opportunity to improve global health and reduce the harmful impacts of global warming by drawing black carbon into climate schemes. –YaleGlobal

Cutting Climate Change's Gordian Knot

A new way to improve health and lower the risk of future climate change
John C. Topping Jr.
Friday, April 2, 2010

Soot in the sky: Diesel trucks and jeepneys emit black carbon which envelopes the earth (below) as captured by NASA.Click here to see earth upclose

WASHINGTON: Alexander the Great reportedly helped establish his claim to be King of Asia by using his sword to slice in two the seemingly impossible to untie Gordian Knot. Today climate negotiators preparing for the 16th conference of the parties (COP16) in Cancun seem as perplexed in addressing the mounting climate challenge as earlier visitors to Phrygia were in untying that knot.

Now, due to a remarkably fortunate coincidence of health and climate science, those interested in preventing climate change from accelerating past humanity’s capacity to adapt to it have a weapon as mighty as Alexander’s sword, provided they can wield it with comparable ingenuity. The Center for Biological Diversity, a US based environmental group, on February 22, 2010 petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act under the Clean Water Act to reduce black carbon emissions on the grounds that they accelerate melting of sea ice and glaciers. The petition suggests that the EPA adopt water quality criteria for black carbon causing each of ten Western states with glaciers and one (Alaska) with sea ice as well to adopt the EPA standard or set their own. The petitioners envision controls on emissions from diesel engines, particularly from heavy duty vehicles and construction equipment and vessels that may traverse the Arctic more as sea ice diminishes.

Black carbon is a key constituent of particulates or soot from incomplete combustion. On a global basis its heat warming potential is great – almost as much as that from all energy sector carbon dioxide – and its effects on sea ice and glaciers are even greater, as it reduces the ability of glaciers, snow and sea ice to reflect incoming sunlight back into space.

Although they have highlighted a crucial problem, the environmental petitioners are likely to be frustrated. First, if the EPA were to regulate black carbon, it would seem much more likely to do this under the Clean Air Act that has been used to control particulates and may be used to control carbon dioxide. Second, although diesel emissions of black carbon and resulting heat absorbing change appear to play a large role in some places in glacial melt, there is preliminary evidence that black carbon plays an even bigger role in Arctic sea ice retreat, over and above heat transport from generalized global warming. And this black carbon may be coming especially from forest fires in Alaska, Siberia and Canada and from deliberate open burning in Kazakhstan.

Forest fires could be an increasing problem as warming produces more lightning strikes. A nascent effort to develop voluntary international life cycle greenhouse standards for businesses operating in the Arctic envisions sustainable forestry practices that might encourage harvesting for bio-energy of dead wood thus reducing fire risk. This effort that also looks to reduce aircraft emissions from flights over the Arctic may be a more effective and comprehensive means of averting such drastic Arctic climate consequences as rapid Greenland glacial melt or massive releases of methane from thawing tundra.

Useful as these Arctic focused efforts may be, their overall effect may be modest compared with spurring a planet wide rapid reduction in black carbon emissions. In 2008 climate scientists began to recognize that soot that claims millions of lives is a big factor in the planet’s warming. Driven by both health and climate concerns, some Australian entrepreneurs, Philippine jeepney drivers and environmental officials and greenhouse traders may soon meld these efforts.

For years, environmentalists have striven to introduce cleaner cook stoves in developing countries. These efforts have been driven by health and gender equality concerns. Stove related pollution may cause as many as 1.9 million deaths globally each year – about 85 percent of which are women and children. Inefficient burning causes women to spend more time foraging for biomass. Further, recent research suggests that replacement of conventional stoves with ones emitting no or little black carbon would be roughly the same as converting every gasoline powered car or light truck to a non-greenhouse gas emitter from the climate standpoint.

Yet black carbon reductions have no value in the greenhouse markets set up under the Kyoto Protocol and the European trading markets. So they limp along with funding or support from bilateral agencies and some prescient organizations like the United Nations Foundation.

A breakthrough in Manila may change all of this. There an Australian firm, Rotec, has reached an agreement with the jeepney drivers’ association and environmental officials that could result in the retrofitting of as many as a half million jeepneys with devices over the next few years. This action would result in sizable reductions in particulates that cause great health damage and generate significant black carbon. The retrofits would reduce particulate emissions about 70 percent with significant health benefits to jeepney drivers and passengers and some to other residents of Metro Manila who will breathe cleaner air.

The devices will also produce a small improvement in fuel efficiency due to more complete combustion; their greatest appeal to drivers, however, is the potentially large reduction in health risk they would incur. Rotec has cleverly designed a package that would enable them to finance the retrofitting of the vehicles, retain nominal ownership of the emission reduction devices, rent them for a token annual amount to drivers and recoup their investment by harvesting emission credits. Such credits would come from a voluntary emission reduction credit group that has the latitude and foresight to allow credits for black carbon reductions in CO2 equivalent.

Rotec envisions this model spreading throughout the ASEAN countries. They may not only have hit upon a winning business model, this might also transform global climate protection strategies. Voluntary emission credits might similarly finance large-scale installation of low emitting or solar stoves and other cleaner vehicles. For a while, the voluntary emission reduction credit system might produce more effective reductions than the trading markets that have arisen under the mandatory systems; in a few years, however, the official markets under the Kyoto Protocol or any successor regime might be expected to yield to the logic of crediting reductions that might both save lives and immediately help prevent climate change from spiraling out of control.

A troubling aspect of an aggressive black carbon strategy is the perception by many developing countries – the principal health beneficiaries – that it amounts to a shifting of blame for climate change from North to South. Fortunately, there is a win-win opportunity in the United States that could save US consumers and industry huge sums, result in sizable reductions of both carbon dioxide and black carbon and go a long way to ease the North-South gulf on this issue.

Removal of barriers to industrial energy recycling in the US might save tens of billions of dollars annually, slash carbon dioxide emissions and also reduce black carbon emissions. Together with reduction of diesel particulates from transportation, a process well underway in the US, this would make clear that focus on black carbon is a sincere approach to benefit all whether they live in Chicago, Shanghai, Mumbai or even the high Arctic.


John C. Topping Jr. is the President of the Washington, D.C. based Climate Institute, and a co-author/editor of the book Sudden and Disruptive Climate Change (UK: Earthscan, 2008).
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