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Climate & Energy

Fast action on short lived pollutants could have direct impact on climate change

Nick Nuttall

19 Sep 2012

Emerging concerns that increases in oil and gas activity and shipping in the Arctic will increase melting (Arctic sea ice thaw may be accelerated by oil, shipping-Thomson Reuters 18 September)  has further spotlighted growing worries but also extraordinary opportunities linked with so called Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs).

The article focuses on black carbon—known to you and me as soot—produced by ships and oil and gas flaring as well as millions of other point sources across the planet.

These include inefficient brick kilns, cook stoves, diesel engines and the burning of agricultural wastes—the practice of swaling in Russia considered being a significant source of soot into the Arctic.

Black carbon can, when in the atmosphere absorb heat and thus aggravate climate change linked with the build up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Falling onto ice, black carbon can reduce its ability to reflect heat back into space: again accelerating melting.

Other SLCPs include methane emitted from rotting organic material in landfills,

oil and gas infrastructure and agriculture; low level or so called tropospheric ozone and a range of substances called hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) being now increasingly  used as replacement refrigerants.

While HFCs have zero impact on the ozone layer that protects the earth from dangerous levels of ultra violet rays, many are powerful greenhouse gases.

Overall it is estimated that fast action on SLCPs could have a direct impact on climate change, with the potential to reduce the warming expected by 2050 by up to 0.5 degrees Celsius.

At the same time, by 2030, such action can prevent millions of premature deaths linked with for example breathing in soot while avoid the annual loss of more than 30 million tons of crops.

Addressing these pollutants will take centre stage today at a meeting in Accra hosted by the environment ministries of Ghana and Nigeria and a new voluntary initiative called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC).

The Coalition, whose secretariat is hosted by UNEP, was launched earlier this year as a way of catalyzing world-wide action on SLCPs.

Today its membership stands at close to 30 governments and non-state bodies including Bangladesh, Canada, France, Germany, Ghana, Mexico, the United States, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, International Council on Clean Transportation and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The Accra meeting will present to governments from across Africa and beyond the latest science, the reason why fast action on SLCPs is needed and the benefits.

Annual average levels of particulate matter including black carbon in the air in Accra are close to 100 microgrammes per cubic metre versus a World Health Organization guideline of 20.

In Dakar, Senegal the levels are 150 micogrammes per cubic metre and average levels in Delhi, India or Lahore, Pakistan can be ten times the WHO guidelines.

The meeting will also highlight early action by the Coalition. Mexico for example has recently launched an initiative with the Coalition to modernize traditional brick kilns in the developing world.

The types and quantities of kilns and the fuels used vary within regions and even within countries.  For instance, there are approximately 100,000 large operating units in India, around 20,000 artisanal brick kilns in Mexico, while most of the 6,000 units in Bangladesh are the circa 1900´s large-scale kilns with fixed chimneys.

Recent studies show that implementing more efficient technologies, mainly during the firing of bricks, can result in reductions in pollutant emissions of 10 to 50%, depending on the process, scale and fuel used.

Waste generated world-wide is responsible for an estimated one-third of global methane emissions—a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and one linked to the generation of ground level ozone that is not only damaging to crops but human health.

The Coalition is working with the Global Methane Initiative and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which is partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, to assist urban areas to cut methane emission from across the waste chain including from landfills and pollution linked with organic waste like food.

The initiative is also planning to assist cities in reducing open burning of municipal waste, which results in harmful black carbon emissions.

Another initiative is focusing on heavy duty diesel vehicles and engines. The use of low sulphur fuels opens up the possibility of one method – fitting particle or black carbon filters to heavy duty vehicles.

The Coalition is planning to build off of an existing UNEP-hosted initiative—the Clean Fuels and Vehicles Partnership that was established at the World Summit on Sustainable Development initially to phase-out lead in petrol in developing countries.

All too often action to protect human health and the environment can be portrayed as a cost to economies—but recent scientific research indicates that the global phase-out of lead in transport fuels is actually saving the global economy over $2 trillion a year as a result of reduced health costs, improvements in IQ and even perhaps reduced levels of criminality.

Some countries, including several Small Island Developing States have become concerned that focusing on SLCPs might defocus efforts under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the urgency to agree on a new international treaty by 2015 to come into force by 2020.

The Coalition is clear that its partnership must compliment and support the aims under the legally-binding UN process—no amount of cuts in black carbon for example can spare the planet and its people from dangerous levels of climate change over the 21st century unless big reductions are made in the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

But given the cost effective benefits of acting on SLCPs—many of the actions needed would eventually save money by for example harvesting methane as a fuel rather than venting it as a pollutant—the range of health, food and climate benefits and the fact that no new technologies are required, it would seem prudent to take this opportunity.

The extent of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has shrunk this summer to the smallest since satellite records began in the 1970s—black carbon emissions and low level ozone produced by increased oil and gas activity and rising levels of shipping are likely to aggravate the situation.

We need all hands on deck—no grim or ironic pun intended.

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