20-26 February 2015 #745

Getting rid of soot

Reducing black carbon in the region will have multiple benefits and save lives
Helena Molin Valdes and Arnico Panday

The Himalaya region is among the most vulnerable to climate change. Retreating glaciers reduce dry-season water availability and increase the risk of glacial lake outburst floods, while increased climate variability and changes in rainfall and monsoon patterns could threaten regional water, food security and change the occurrence of landslides and floods.

Climate change in the Himalaya is partly a result of carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere and impact the climate for centuries. However, it is also caused by ‘short lived climate pollutants’ (SLCPs) that stay in the atmosphere briefly, but still impact on the climate. In recent decades the Himalayan region has experienced increasing urban and rural air pollution, affecting people’s health, agriculture, visibility and tourism. Globally, air pollutants have been shown to cause as many as seven million premature deaths every year, destroy millions of tons of crops, and push up the earth’s temperature, contributing to climate change.

The short atmospheric lifetime of SLCPs has two important consequences for policy makers: actions to reduce their emissions yield results much faster than actions to reduce CO2 emissions, and they are most concentrated near their source regions. Because they also have significant impact on health and agriculture, action to reduce emissions bring significant non-climate benefits. Many of the biggest sources of SLCPs can be addressed using well-established measures that are cost-effective to implement. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) was set up three years ago to reduce these pollutants, it now has 100 members and is focused on finding practical solutions to reduce four key short-lived climate pollutants: black carbon, tropospheric ozone, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

In the Himalayan region, action on just one of the SLCPs, black carbon (or ’soot’) could have multiple benefits for health, food and water security and the environment. Household cook stoves are one of the main sources of black carbon in the Himalayan region. Typical cook stoves burn wood, dung and crop residues for domestic energy, and usually have very incomplete combustion, which pollute both outdoor and indoor air. Reducing exposure to black carbon pollution from cook stoves could cut premature deaths in the region by as much as 750,000 people. Broaden the focus to diesel engines, brick production, and other pollution sources and the number goes even higher. The effect on agriculture could be just as dramatic: more than 15 million metric tons of staple crops could be added to the region’s food supply with the reduction of black carbon and methane.

The glaciers and permafrost of the Himalayan region store more freshwater than any region outside the Arctic and Antarctica: nearly 10% of the global total. Black carbon particles darken snow and ice surfaces, causing them to absorb more light and heat and melt faster. The melting of these huge stores of water and changing precipitation patterns threaten the water resources of up to 1.3 billion people living downstream with consequences for food security as the river basins fed by this water produces nearly a quarter of the world’s cereals.

A number of efforts are already underway in the Himalaya through CCAC. It has supported projects in Bangladesh to introduce low sulphur fuels, a national green freight program and a strategy to reduce black carbon emissions in Chittagong Port. The CAAC Bricks Initiative is elevating the anti-pollution issue onto the agenda of national governments, and its Asian network is being coordinated by ICIMOD and will support Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Pakistan for cleaner brick production.

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) is addressing SLCPs from agriculture assessing options to reduce open burning in the Eastern Himalaya as well as the Andes region in 2014-2015 -- regions particularly sensitive to black carbon emissions.

The CCAC is supporting the conduct of inventories of national consumption of alternatives to HFCs in 14 developing countries, among them Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Jordan, Maldives, Mongolia, and Vietnam. A technology demonstration project is being conducted on the capital island of the Maldives, and CCAC is working in India to demonstrate the commercial and technical viability of alternatives to HFCs in vehicle air-conditioning systems. 

Helena Molin Valdes is Head of the CCAC Secretariat and Arnico Panday is a Senior Atmospheric Scientist at the Atmosphere Initiative at ICIMOD.


What are short-lived climate pollutants? | Create infographics

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