A Bolder Black Carbon Strategy May Help Cut Climate Change’s Gordian Knot
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 in Cancun, Mexico, 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 Feb. 22, 2010, petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency 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 10 Western states with glaciers and one (Alaska) with sea ice also 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.
Though there are nascent effort to develop voluntary international life cycle greenhouse standards for businesses operating in the Arctic, their overall effect may be modest compared with spurring a planetwide rapid reduction in black carbon emissions. In 2008, climate scientists began to recognize that soot, which is responsible for millions of deaths, is also 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 cooking 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 replacing conventional stoves with ones that emit 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 a 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 by 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 it 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 its 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 Asean countries. The company may not only have hit upon a winning business model, this might also transform global climate-protection strategies. Voluntary emission credits might similarly finance the 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 United States might save tens of billions of dollars annually, slash carbon dioxide emissions and also reduce black carbon emissions. Together with the reduction of diesel particulates from transportation, a process well under way in the States, 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 president of the Washington, DC-based Climate Institute and a co-author/editor of the book “Sudden and Disruptive Climate Change.” Copyright YaleGlobal 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.