2008: MA Boston Globe: The Other Carbon: Reducing Black Carbon’s Role in Global Warming

2008: MA Boston Globe: The Other Carbon: Reducing Black Carbon’s Role in Global Warming

BOSTON — Carbon dioxide, the most well-known greenhouse gas, isn’t actually a toxic substance. In fact, plants, within some limits, like and use the stuff. The problem,as we know, is with the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Black carbon, on the other hand, is composed of very fine particles of carbon that can be released into the air in aerosol form. They are generally generated by burning some type of biomass, like firewood.
V. (Ram) Ramanathan of the UC-San Diego La Jolla,  said that reducing black carbon could play an important role in reducing global climate change here at the AAAS annual meeting. Ramanathan said that a mere 10% reduction in black carbon would be equivalent to eliminating 25 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. For scale, the world produces about 30 8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year (and 8 gigatons of carbon).

Black carbon makes ice and snow packs dirty, reducing the reflectivity
(aka albedo) of those materials. That makes them absorb more heat and melt more quickly, which is the kind of feedback loop that practically defines the climate change problem. (UPDATE: Thanks Andy.)
But the most exciting thing about the professor’s talk was that reducing black carbon is an obvious win-win. And the types of reductions he’s seeking can be accomplished with current technologies. Ramanathan said that 50-60% of black carbon emissions in India come from rural cooking. The exposure to the smoke with black carbon particulates was directly responsible for 1 million deaths. So, reducing black carbon is a public health and global warming win.
Towards that end, Ramanathan is running a pilot in Andira Pradesh, India, called Project Surya. With a host of available technologies, he is attempting to create a smokeless village. Importantly, he’s also deploying 2000 environmental sensors to make sure that the technology they are implementing is actually making an impact.
He did note, however, that reducing black carbon would not be enough to stop climate change and merely could "buy us five or ten years" while we bring other, CO2 reducing technologies online.
Image: flickr/procsilas

  • Posted by: lizard | 02/17/08 | 5:12 pm
    alexander and davec:
    Thanks for the info. I appreciate it.
    I certainly agree that particulates, including black carbon, are killing us off early in huge numbers. Respiratory illness, heart disease, clogged circulation, etc, etc. We sure are paying more than one price at the pump.
  • Posted by: Rick Mc Callister | 02/17/08 | 6:23 pm
    Can someone tell me how much black carbon is produced by burning canefields during the zafra (sugar cane harvest)? Given that many are touting cane-based ethanol, it would be nice to know whether or not it’s a smart idea.

  • Posted by: BobB | 02/17/08 | 9:30 pm
    Interesting article. CBS recently aired a show on AGW. At one point of the show they were at Greenland and discussing a link between human produced C02 and the melting of the ice sheet. I thought it strange that the ice was covered by a dark layer of some type (black carbon maybe)and the producers of the show (and the so called scientist being interviewed) made no reference to what this dark layer would do to the ice. As I learned in about third grade that dark absorbs light the surface gets warmer.
    Posted by: marxz | 02/18/08 | 12:06 am
  • Rick Mc Callister – actually you don’t HAVE to burn off the husk of cane before harvest.. in fact some of Australia’s can harvest this year will be burn free and the waste material will be stripped off post harvesting at the can processing plant to burn for the plant’s power generation:
    I don’t know if the processing plant will do an sort of carbon trapping so the net effect will probably be just the off set of coal burnt by municipal power plants that normally supply power to the cane processing plants.

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