Co-Benefits of Cutting Black Carbon and Ground-level Ozone

A new UN study highlights the potential benefits of reducing specific air pollutants which not only help to prevent climate change but have a number of positive benefits for human health and agriculture.

If the world is to avoid dangerous climate change and keep a twenty-first century temperature rise below two degrees Celsius or less, it will be necessary to achieve a significant reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide – a key greenhouse gas.

However, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meterological Organisation (WMO) report coordinated by the Stockholm Environment Institute on Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone shows that the measures can reduce near-term climate change and premature deaths and crop loss by taking action to reduce these two pollutants.

Black carbon exists as particles in the atmosphere and is a major component of soot. At ground level ozone is an air pollutant harmful to human health and ecosystems and, throughout the lower atmosphere, is also a significant greenhouse gas. Ozone is not directly emitted, but is produced from emissions of precursors of which methane and carbon monoxide are of particular interest.

Black carbon and ozone in the lower atmosphere are harmful air pollutants that have substantial regional and global climate impacts. They disturb tropical rainfall and regional circulation patterns (e.g. the Asian monsoon) affecting the livelihoods of millions of people.

Black carbon’s darkening of snow and ice surfaces increases their absorption of sunlight which, along with global warming, exacerbates melting of snow and ice around the world. This affects the water cycle and increases the risk of flooding.

Black carbon, a component of particulate matter, and ozone both lead to premature deaths worldwide. Ozone is also the most important air pollutant responsible for reducing crop yields and affects food security.

The UNEP/WMO study calls for immediate action to reduce emissions of black carbon and tropospheric ozone, which have the potential to slow the rate of climate change within the first half of this century.

Climate benefits from cutting ozone are achieved by reducing emissions of some of its precursors, especially methane which is also a powerful greenhouse gas. These short-lived climate gases (e.g. black carbon and methane) only remain in the atmosphere for a short time compared to longer-lived greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide).

The study also highlights how a small number of emission reduction measures targeting black carbon and ozone precursors could immediately begin to protect climate, public health, water and food security, and ecosystems.

The measures include the recovery of methane from coal, oil and gas extraction and transport, methane capture in waste management, use of clean-burning stoves for residential cooking, diesel particulate filters for vehicles and the banning of open burning of agricultural waste.

Full implementation is achievable with existing technology but would require significant and strategic investment and institutional arrangements.

The study claims that the full implementation of the identified measures would reduce future global warming by 0.5 degrees Celsius (within a range of 0.2 – 0.7 Celsius). If the measures were to be implemented by 2030, this could halve the potential increase in global temperature projected for 2050 compared to a reference scenario based on current policies and energy and fuel projections. The rate of regional temperature increase would also be reduced.

In addition, implementation of all the measures could avoid 2.4 million premature deaths (within a range of 0.7- 4.6 million) and the loss of 52 million tonnes (within a range of 30.140 million tonnes), 1.4 per cent, of global production of maize, rice, soybean and wheat each year. The most substantial benefits will be felt immediately in or close to the regions where action is taken to reduce emissions, with the greatest health and crop benefits expected.

The study concludes that there is confidence that immediate and multiple benefits will be achieved upon implementation of the identified measures. The degree of confidence varies according to pollutant, impact and region.

For example, there is higher confidence in the effect of methane measures on global temperatures than in the effect of black carbon measures, especially where these relate to the burning of biomass. There is also high confidence that benefits will be realised for human health from reducing particles, including black carbon, and to crop yields from reducing tropospheric ozone concentrations.

While many of the measures identified by the study are already available and being implemented by some countries, a considerable amount of work will need to be done if these measures are to be implemented on a international level.

A government may ban the burning of agricultural waste burning however enforcement of the ban is a different issue. In developing countries where there is limited resources they may not have he man power to enforce such measures the same could be said for the use of cleaning burning stoves.

Fearful that the focus on short-lived climate gases will deter from the current GHG reductions efforts, the UNEP/WMO study warns that deep and immediate carbon dioxide reductions are still required to protect against long-term climate.

The measures identified by the study complement but do not replace anticipated carbon dioxide reduction measures. For major carbon dioxide reduction strategies target the energy and large industrial sectors and therefore would not necessarily result in significant reductions in emissions of black carbon or the ozone precursors methane and carbon monoxide.

As with many environmental problems, we know the cause, we the know the effects and we know the solutions but we are still faced with the barriers of political apathy and public resistance that stifles progress in resolving the problem.

The study clearly demosntrates the benefits of taking action on black carbon and ground-level ozone (and its precursors) have of a number climate change, public health and food security benefits especially in developing countries where health and food are high priorities.

All we need now is to put what we know into practice.

© Gary Haq 2011


The End Game In Copenhagen

THE Copenhagen climate talks provide the opportunity for world leaders to move boldly and decisively to tackle climate change. Whatever the outcome, the summit will go down in history as a major turning point that changed the fate of our species on this planet.

THE Copenhagen climate talks provide the opportunity for world leaders to move boldly and decisively to tackle climate change. Whatever the outcome, the summit will go down in history as a major turning point that determined the fate of humankind on earth.

Throughout history there have been a number of key events that have influenced and shaped our relationship with the environment. In 1972 universal concern about the health and sustainable use of the planet and its resources resulted in the United Nations conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Stockholm conference recognised our failure to manage the biosphere as well as the increasing gap between developed and developing countries. For the first time the environment was placed high on the political agenda. The conference led to the foundation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had a mandate to protect and manage the global environment. After the conference a number of nations established ministries of environment and developed the first wave of policies to reduce environmental pollution. This period also saw the establishment of many leading environmental non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth.

Twenty years later in 1992, nations of the world gathered together once more at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also know as the Earth Summit. The Summit produced Agenda 21 – a blueprint for action to be taken by organisations globally, nationally and locally to implement the concept of sustainable development. It also led to the adoption of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC entered into force in 1994 with the objective to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The Commission on Sustainable Development was created to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements.

Twenty years after the Earth Summit in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was convened by the United Nations to discuss progress towards sustainable development and resulted in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which was intended to build on the achievements made since the 1992 Earth Summit and realise the remaining goals not yet achieved. The plan promoted the integration of the three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection.

In 1997 the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC was held in Kyoto, Japan. The meeting led to the adoption of the international agreement on climate change called the Kyoto Protocol. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

All these events have been major milestones in the history of environmentalism and have changed the way we manage our environment from the global to the local level. The fifteenth meeting of COP in Copenhagen (COP 15) will be another such event. However, this event is seen as an end game. The final chance to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol which will prevent runaway climate change. This will mean halting the increase in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to keep the global temperature below two degrees centigrade. Above this level there will be dangerous and irreparable damage to our climate system.

A reduction of 25-40% compared to 1990 levels are needed and these would need to rise to 80-95% by 2050. The Stockholm Environment Institute in partnership with Friends of the Earth Europe shows how European Union can cut domestic emissions by 40% in 2020, and by 90% in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is considered the minimum scale and speed of reductions science says is likely to be needed from rich countries to avoid a climate catastrophe. The 40% emissions cuts can be achieved through a combination of radical improvements in energy efficiency, the accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels, a dramatic shift towards renewable energies, and lifestyle changes.

The big issues are whether developing countries such as China and India can continue to grow and achieve their development goals and whether richer nations are willing to pay for poorer countries to achieve a low carbon development.

Whether talks at Copenhagen succeed or fail it will go down in history as a landmark event. We can only hope that all parties can “seal the deal”. If not then they can at least achieve this goal as soon as possible in 2010. The only thing worse than no deal is a false deal – a deal that raises hopes and expectations but ultimately fails due to broken promises and puts human survival on this planet at risk.

© Gary Haq 2009

Food for Thought: Averting the Food Crisis and Reducing Waste

The UK throws away an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food away every year. Most of the food could have been eaten. Not only does throwing away food waste precious resources, food waste equates to annual cost of £10.2 billion and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Are we taking our food for granted?

food-for-everyoneThe UK throws away an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food away every year. Most of the food could have been eaten. Not only does throwing away food waste precious resources, food waste equates to annual cost of £10.2 billion and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Are we taking our food for granted?

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that the average UK household throws away 18% of all food purchased with families with children throwing away 27%. It is mostly food that could have been consumed if it had been better stored or managed, or had not been left uneaten on a plate. Much of the food waste goes into landfill with an estimated £1 billion worth of food wasted in the UK still “in date” while nearly a quarter was disposed of because the “use by” or “best before” date had expired. Salad, fruit and bread are most commonly wasted food while 60% of all dumped food remains

We are not only paying for food we do not eat, we are having to deal with the cost that the waste creates as well as the cost to the climate with regard to the energy used in growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and refrigerating food that only ends up in the bin.

While we throw away food in the UK people in other parts of the world are struggling to cope with an increase in food prices. In 2008 there was a surge in food prices which resulted in millions of people being plunged into hunger causing rioting in countries such as Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt and Haiti. The increase in selected commodity prices for wheat, corn, and soya resulted in 110 million people being driven into poverty and added 44 million more to the undernourished. Although prices have fallen sharply since the peak in July 2008, they are still high above those in 2004 for many key commodities.

unepfoodA recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the The Environmental Food Crisis states that up to 25 per cent of the world’s food production may become lost due to environmental breakdowns by 2050 unless action is taken.

Cereal yields have already stagnated worldwide and fish landings are declining. Drought, biofuels, high oil prices, low grain stocks and speculation in food stocks all contribute to the current food crisis. These may worsen the situation substantially in the coming decades. The amount of fish currently discarded at sea – estimated at 30 million tonnes annually – could sustain more than a 50 per cent increase in fish farming and aquaculture.

Climate change emerges is a key factor that may undermine the chances of feeding over nine billion people by 2050. Increasing water scarcities and a rise and spread of invasive pests such as insects, diseases and weeds may substantially depress yields in the future.

Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain. Rather than focusing solely on increasing production, food security can be increased by enhancing supply through optimising food energy efficiency. The world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet.

Tackling the global crisis starts at home. We all need to do our bit by ensuring we do not waste this precious resource we have taken for granted for so long.

© Gary Haq 2009