Tackling black carbon (soot) and other short-term pollutants buys valuable time for tackling CO2. But in long term, CO2 emissions reductions are seen as remaining critical.

Imagine every American family cooking every meal in a barbecue, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The soot and smoke would choke the air, threatening the lives of millions.

That picture is completely absurd, isn’t it? Well, not for three billion people on the planet who rely every day on primitive cooking stoves. It’s no wonder then that the Obama administration had few problems last month rallying American politicians and the news media around a new global initiative to clean up soot, also known as black carbon.

Burning wood and straw to make an Indian bread known as Chapati is part of many womens’ daily life style in India. 

The effort, framed partly as a global health issue, is actually part of a new campaign whose primary aim is to cut short-lived pollutants, including black carbon but also methane and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions. All three promote atmospheric warming; black carbon absorbs solar radiation, both when it’s suspended in the air and when it falls to the ground — most significantly on Arctic glaciers. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (announced February 16 at the U.S. State Department) includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden and Ghana. More members are expected to sign on, and the coalition has scheduled its first meeting for April 23 in Stockholm.

If the world’s nations can drastically reduce emissions of those three short-lived pollutants, 0.5 degree Centigrade of warming (0.9 Fahrenheit) can be avoided by mid-century, scientists estimated in a January 13 paper published in the journal Science. Current climate models predict a mean temperature rise of 1.34 degrees C (2.4 Fahrenheit) above current average temperatures by 2050. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a highly regarded climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has calculated that reducing short-lived climate forcers by 30 to 50 percent could keep warming below 2 degrees C until the end of the 21st century.

Slowing the Warming Sans CO2 Political, Economic Baggage

The effort to cut short-lived pollutants, funded with an initial $12 million from the U.S. and $3 million from Canada, is widely appealing in part because it doesn’t carry the political and economic baggage that has stalled progress on cutting CO2.

It’s also a worthy campaign on its own. Cleaning up black carbon, which billows from dirty cooking stoves, cruise ship smokestacks, diesel trucks and other sources, would dramatically improve world health and save the lives of millions. Curbing black carbon, methane, and hydrofluorcarbon emissions also could slow the rise in global temperatures, as Ramanathan has estimated.

But by itself, the new initiative will only buy some time; warming caused by the relentless rise in CO2 emissions eventually will overwhelm any progress made on cutting short-lived pollutants.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges that the new effort is no substitute for cutting CO2. “We know, of course, that this effort is not the answer to the climate crisis,” she said in her February 16 remarks. “There is no way to effectively address climate change without reducing carbon dioxide, the most dangerous, prevalent, and persistent greenhouse gas.”

Concerns over Sending Mistaken ‘Enough Already’ Message

Major news outlets that reported on the new initiative recognized that point.

In a February 17 column, BBC columnist Richard Black was among the most guarded in praising the effort, citing the January paper in Science as support for his reticence. “The essential takeaway sentence from the entire paper on the relationship between tackling CO2 and tackling the short-lived agents must be this: ‘Implementing both substantially reduces the risks of crossing the 2°C threshold,’” Black wrote. “And the essential word in that sentence must be ‘both’.”

Black went on to quote Oxford University climate scientist Myles Allen, who offered a more frank assessment. “Given that we don’t have any prospect of a credible plan to reduce CO2 emissions,” Allen told Black, “the suggestion that immediate cuts in methane and black carbon will reduce the risk of dangerous long-term climate change is pure fantasy.”

Black also warned that the new initiative could produce the impression that enough is being done, perhaps leading to a slackening of concern and commitment to act. “Emphasizing short-term warmers in the absence of meaningful action on CO2, to some observers, smacks of short-term politics and an unwillingness to get to grips with the main issue,” Black wrote.

A ‘Second Front’ in What Now Seems ‘Hopeless’ War on CO2 Emissions?

Meanwhile, The New York Times, in a February 17 editorial, characterized the initiative as a “second front in the climate war.”

“Governments everywhere should obviously be pushing to reduce carbon dioxide, the most dangerous greenhouse gas,” the Times editorialized. “In the meantime, opening an important second front in the climate war will demonstrate that progress is possible.”

On February 25, The Washington Post acknowledged in an editorial that the fight against global warming can seem “hopeless” in light of the fact that renewable sources of energy that don’t produce carbon dioxide amount to only 10 percent of America’s current energy mix.

The Post‘s editors wrote that the new initiative, as well as increasing the nation’s use of natural gas in place of fossil fuels, “can buy the world more time to allow carbon-free technologies to catch up.”

Women preparing food in a  traditional rural village in India, where heavily polluting cook stoves, and their soot,  are common.

The Post‘s editorial board argued further that the developing world must act aggressively if the new initiative is to work. “It will take more than American money,” the editors wrote. “Regulators in the developing world must enforce stronger air-pollution rules. Since many of the health benefits will be immediate, though, some may be more eager to do so than they have been to cut carbon dioxide emissions.”

In their study in Science, Drew Shindell from NASA Goddard and his colleagues outlined 14 steps to curb soot and methane emissions — all doable with current technology. They include fixing leaks in natural gas pipelines and promoting the use of cleaner cooking stoves in developing nations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere — a step Clinton has promoted for years.

A January 13 blog entry in The Washington Post discussed the steps outlined in the Shindell paper. It also pointed to a separate discussion on the topic by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The campaign to clean up black carbon has been in the works for years. Ramanathan, among many other climate scientists, has long been studying its effect on health and climate.

As Secretary of State in 2010, Clinton committed $51 million in U.S. support for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a multi-institutional campaign to create a market for energy efficient and safe cooking stoves. (For more information, see here and here.)

Fighting over CO2 Like Challenging School’s Biggest Bully

In the wake of failed attempts to curb CO2 emissions, the new initiative to tackle short-term pollutants appears to open a narrow door toward some progress in curbing pollutants that promote warming. In an NPR story on February 16, Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, spoke about the ongoing challenge in terms that any school kid could understand:

“I mean, it’s like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard,” Zaelke said of tackling CO2. “You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We’ve made about that much progress with CO2.”

Some climate scientists say the bully has pretty much already won. A March 26 Reuters story on a recent climate conference in London reported that scientists are now warning that “the world is close to reaching tipping points that will make it irreversibly hotter.”

“This is the critical decade,” said Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s climate change institute. “If we don’t get the curves turned around this decade … we are on the cusp of some big changes. We can … cap temperature rise at two degrees, or cross the threshold beyond which the system shifts to a much hotter state.”

Background Readings

Additional Coverage of the January 13 paper in Science:
The Washington Post
Climate Central

Coverage of the February 16 announcement of the new initiative:
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Time Magazine
Agence France Presse (AFP)

Earlier concerns about short-lived pollutants:
Houston Chronicle (2008)
Science (2009)
Cleveland.com (2009)
Los Angeles Times (2009)
The New York Times (2010)
CNN (2010)

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...