THe Blog

December 09, 2015

China and India’s “crazy bad” smog has been masking global warming

Jonathan Mingle, in this Quartz article, writes that the actions taken by Beijing and Delhi are "the latest stopgap measures used to address a global air pollution emergency that cuts short the lives of over 7 million lives every year. But solving this mounting crisis poses a puzzle for policymakers. That’s because cleaning up certain kinds of air pollution could actually hasten global warming." 

 

Excerpts of the article below:

 

"Both Delhi and Beijing are choked with heavy smog that exposes their combined 40 million residents to dangerously high concentrations of fine particles that can penetrate deep into human lungs.... authorities took the unprecedented step of issuing a “red alert” for Beijing, shutting down schools and construction sites to curb exposure to particulate levels over 10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended threshold. Delhi’s levels have been spiking just as high, leading authorities there to propose limiting the use of personal cars to alternate days."

"To understand the problem, it’s important to first understand that smog comes in a variety of shades....Sulfur dioxide and other light-colored aerosols reflect incoming sunlight back into space, effectively cooling Earth’s atmosphere. Black carbon, on the other hand, is a powerful warming agent, hundreds of times more efficient at turning sunlight into heat than the same amount of carbon dioxide. Scientists warn that emissions of sulfur dioxide and other light-colored particles have been “masking” the warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to date."

"As developing economies reduce sulfur emissions from coal burning, concentrations of light-colored particles in the atmosphere will decline. This means that proportionately more light will reach the Earth’s surface and get trapped as heat—resulting in a burst of accelerated warming, like a coiled spring being released....The upshot: As we stop producing so much of these light-colored aerosols, our day of reckoning will arrive, and in a hurry.....But there is a way out of this weird trap we’ve set for ourselves. By prioritizing the reduction of smoke richest in black carbon, we can offset some of the anticipated “unmasked” warming–and save millions of lives in the process."

"A host of creative entrepreneurs are already delivering some of these cost-effective solutions at a small scale. They are starved for low-cost finance and institutional support to reach the scale that could truly transform public health, and make a serious dent in the near-term warming of our planet."

"Let’s hope the talks in the City of Light generate enough momentum to give us a shot at maintaining a livable climate. In the long run, carbon dioxide is our primary threat, and we can’t afford to take our collective eye off that ball for a moment. But let’s not look past the immediate problem of black carbon, and the plight of the many millions struggling right now to breathe under dark skies."

 

Read the entire article here.

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