By Dennis Posadas
Recently, a US based environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity, petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clamp down on black carbon emissions. The petitioner asked the EPA to force each state with glaciers and sea ice to adopt the EPA standard on black carbon or set their own. The petitioners envision controls on black carbon emissions from diesel engines, particularly from heavy duty construction vehicles and construction equipment and vessels that traverse the Arctic, especially as the extent of sea ice diminishes.
But as John Topping Jr, President of the Washington, DC based Climate Institute (and a friend of the Philippine climate community) argues in several of his opinion pieces in Cleantech Asia Online and a forthcoming YaleGlobal piece, that a more universal way is to link black soot's climate effects to its well known detrimental health effects.
This has implications, particularly in a country such as the Philippines, as we practically breathe it in everyday.
Black carbon (or soot) is a key constituent of particulates from incomplete combustion. Previously published journal articles (Ramanathan and Carmichael, Journal of Natural Geoscience, 2008) say that the heat warming potential of soot is more than half of carbon dioxide, and its effects on sea ice and glaciers is even greater. Black soot lessens the albedo of glaciers, snow and sea ice in reflecting back solar radiation into space. Unlike carbon dioxide which can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, black soot only stays aloft for days to weeks, meaning that any aggressive reduction not only contributes to health, but also almost immediately to climate change mitigation (MacCracken, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Assn, 2008).
In order to understand that better, think of the huge polar icecaps of the Arctic and Antarctica as huge mirrors (white instead of silvery) that reflect back sunlight back into space. Now, as with many white surfaces when exposed to soot, these reflective surfaces blacken a bit from soot in the air and reduce their reflectivity.
Think of those reflective signs along EDSA that used to be reflective, but are now barely noticeable. When brand new, you could see them clearly, but nowadays you could be a few feet away and bump into them because of all the black soot deposits. Now think of the polar icecaps as the Earth's cooling mirrors.
Here in the Philippines, the impact of black soot is obvious. Just look around, wipe the soot in your kitchen stove area, or on your face after a day of riding public transportation, or basically just about anywhere in our major cities. Two stroke engine tricycles hauling several passengers and heavy loads, even if they are not designed for that, emit black soot among other pollutants as these are not really designed for that purpose. Poorly maintained jeepneys, trucks, buses and cars all contribute to this. Even inefficient cookstoves are a culprit to black soot emission.
While the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases needs to be worked on, in order to reduce the risk of climate change, the reduction of black soot is a low hanging fruit that even individuals can work on. Black soot reduction is quite easy to implement, it quickly produces results, not just for our health, but also for our climate, so the rationale to cut it should easily be justifiable.
To strengthen the health rationale for financing the reduction of black carbon emissions, we need to add the climate mitigation potential. As of the moment, carbon credit mechanisms do not really include black soot reduction. Financing for black soot reduction can pay for the rehabilitation and replacement of old jeepney diesel engines, inefficient tricycle two stroke engines, and the like.
As Mr. Topping recommends in his YaleGlobal and Cleantech Asia Online opinion pieces, the carbon development mechanism (a.k.a. carbon credits) should include black soot reduction in its list of fundable activities. You do something not just for climate mitigation, but also for clean air and health as well.
Dennis Posadas is the author of Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009) and the Editor of Cleantech Asia Online (http://www.cleantechasiaonline.com). He just recently finished a new business fable on climate and clean energy.