Every February and March, a black haze descends onto mainland Southeast Asia, lowering visibility and driving thousands of people with respiratory complaints into hospital emergency rooms. The cause of this haze has been known for years- the widespread use of slash-and-burn agriculture that results in large swathes of farmland going up in flames annually. What hasn’t been known until recently, however, is the global impact that hazes like this, made up of airborne soot, has had not only on air quality but on the earth’s rising temperature. Scientists now believe that soot, more formally known as black carbon, is responsible for almost twenty percent of the increase in the earth’s temperature over the past century, making it the largest contributing factor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Through legislation aimed at further reducing domestic black carbon emissions and promoting international projects and agreements aimed at emissions cuts, Congress can take immediate, definitive steps towards reducing black carbon’s effect on the rate of climate change.
The impact of black carbon on climate change is sobering. Produced not only by slash-and-burn agriculture but also rudimentary cook stoves and diesel engines, black carbon is found throughout the world. While the highest concentrations of emissions come from Asia- most notably India and China- the U.S. is also a major polluter, with per-capita emissions roughly equal to those of most Southeast Asian countries and responsibility for 6.1% of total global emissions. Incomplete combustion from fuel sources releases black carbon into the atmosphere, where it absorbs sunlight and creates heat. The particles then float out of the atmosphere and settle on the ground, often on ice or snow, where they cause additional damage. Indeed, the most serious problem that black carbon poses is its warming effect on glaciers and large ice masses. Almost half of Arctic melting to date has been caused by black carbon, which reduces snow and ice’s reflective properties and increases heat retention. In India, black carbon poses a serious threat to the Himalayan glaciers, an essential water source for much of Asia, and one whose demise would have devastating effects on population survival and productivity. In turn, Arctic and glacial melting themselves hold serious consequences for the earth’s climate, as a reduction in ice “can create positive feedbacks leading to even further warming.” The Arctic is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, making it the region most heavily affected by climate change. As permafrost in the Arctic thaws, the vast quantities of carbon and methane currently frozen will be released into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change. Thus, black carbon is not only a heavyweight contributor to climate change but a critical catalyst for other processes that themselves contribute to climate change.
At first, the appearance of black carbon as a new foe in the fight against climate change appears to be yet another setback against progress. On closer examination, however, the opposite is true. The existence of black carbon is good news, not bad. Like carbon dioxide, black carbon is a significant contributor to global warming- experts estimate that the warming effect of black carbon is around 30-60% of carbon dioxide’s. However, unlike carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, black carbon has a short life span, staying in the atmosphere for an average of two weeks. This means that measures taken to reduce black carbon emissions now would have an almost immediate effect on the rate of global warming. In their recent article in Foreign Affairs, Jessica Wallack and Veerabhadran Ramanathan calculated that “fully applying existing emissions-control technologies could cut black carbon emissions by about 50 percent [which] would be enough to offset the warming effects of one to two decades’ worth of carbon-dioxide emissions.” Simple, inexpensive technologies and strategies for effectively reducing black carbon- such as replacing traditional stoves in the developing world with more efficient ones, or retrofitting diesel engines with carbon filters- already exist.
Furthermore, unlike strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reducing black carbon can be done without impacting economic growth. As Wallack and Ramanathan point out, black carbon emissions “can be reduced without necessarily limiting the underlying activity that generated them [as] black carbon [precursors] are not essential byproducts of energy use.” This means that developing countries like China and India, which are fond of arguing that emissions cuts are a Western ploy to slow growth, could theoretically agree to programs targeting black carbon without the painful, drawn-out, and impotent international agreements that have characterized climate-change policy so far.
So, the question remains, why aren’t we addressing black carbon in our national climate-change debate? It certainly isn’t because the government is ignorant of black carbon’s existence. Congress has known about both the threats posed by black carbon and benefits of reducing it for years. In October of 2007, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on black carbon and global warming which finished with six conclusions, the most important of which are:
-“Black carbon is the second leading cause of global warming”
-“Decreasing emissions will immediately slow global warming”
-“Decreasing emissions will immediately improve public health”
-“Opportunities to decrease emissions exist now”
Even so, Congress’s progress so far has been negligible, with one exception- the stimulus bill, which set aside an additional $300 million for reducing diesel emissions. Unfortunately, while reducing domestic diesel emissions is a good start, it is not a comprehensive solution for U.S. emissions and certainly not viable for international reductions. Excluding the stimulus bill, the only legislation that mentions black carbon does not call for immediate action but instead suggests further studies. In the house, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 devoted just a few pages to black carbon- Sections 333 and 851. Section 333 stipulated only that the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency must submit a report to Congress on black carbon emissions in one year, while Section 851 required that in eighteen months the Administrator either propose regulations on black carbon emissions or determine that existing regulations are sufficient.
In the Senate, the only legislation on black carbon is S. 849, “A bill to require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study on black carbon emissions.” But the bipartisan bill, is simply another example of Congress kicking the can further down the road. Even if S. 849 passes, it won’t exactly be a harbinger of progress, as the bill merely requires a report on black carbon a year after the bill is enacted.
The lack of legislative process on black carbon so far stands in contrast to public statements by members of Congress. “Taking bold steps to reduce black carbon emissions is a win-win situation because it will lessen the threat of global warming and improve global public health,” Senator Thomas R. Carper [D-DE], Chairman of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, said. Senator John Kerry [D-MA] went even further in a speech delivered at the national press club this July, saying that “unless we act dramatically—and act fast— science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.” Both Carper and Kerry, co-sponsors of S. 849, should be commended for taking a public stance on climate change. However, it is unclear why both senators- Kerry in particular- are not following their words with the dramatic action and bold legislative steps that they agree are so important, particularly when these steps are so uncontroversial.
What is clear is that by pushing back serious discussions on black carbon, Congress is ignoring the opportunity for politically and economically feasible action that would represent an important step forward for U.S. climate policy. With Boxer-Kerry (hopefully) making its way to the Senate soon, and Copenhagen 2009 in only three months, now is the time for Congress to live up to its declarations and take concrete action against black carbon.