Soot reduction 'could help to stop global warming'

Cutting one of humanity's most common pollutants would have immediate cooling effect, Nasa claims

A A A

Governments could slow global warming dramatically, and buy time to avert disastrous climate change, by slashing emissions of one of humanity's most familiar pollutants – soot – according to Nasa scientists. A study by the space agency shows that cutting down on the pollutant, which has so far been largely ignored by climate scientists, can have an immediate cooling effect – and prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution at the same time.

At the beginning of the make-or-break year in international attempts to negotiate a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the soot removal proposal – which is being taken seriously by experts close to the Obama administration – offers hope of a rapid new way of tackling global warming. Governments have long experience in acting against soot.

Cutting its emissions has a virtually instantaneous effect, because it rapidly falls out of the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide which remains there for over a hundred years. And because soot is one of the worst killers among all pollutants, radical reductions save lives and so should command popular and political support.

The study – from Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics – concludes that tackling the pollution provides "substantial benefits for air quality while simultaneously contributing to climate change mitigation" and "may present a unique opportunity to engage parties and nations not yet fully committed to climate change mitigation for its own sake."

Black carbon, the component of soot that gives it its colour, is thought to be the second largest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. Formed through incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, wood and vegetation, it delivers a double whammy.

While in the air, it is spread around the globe by the wind, and helps to heat the atmosphere by absorbing and releasing solar radiation. And when it falls out it darkens snow and ice, at the poles or high in mountains, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight. As a result it melts more quickly, and exposes more dark land or water which absorbs even more energy, and so increases warming.

The bad news – as the Washington-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development points out – is that soot is causing global warming to happen much faster than expected. Its president, Durwood Zaelke, says "black carbon is exacerbating the climate situation": "Taking quick action is quite simply our only near-term option."

Rich countries have already reduced their emissions of black carbon from burning fossil fuels dramatically since the 1950s. The health benefits of a worldwide cut could be massive. Soot contains up to 40 different cancer-causing chemicals and can also cause respiratory and heart diseases. It is estimated to cause two million deaths in the developing world each year – mainly among children – when emitted from wood-burning stoves in poorly ventilated houses. In Britain, research has shown that people are twice as likely to die from respiratory disease when heavily exposed to soot emitted from vehicle exhausts.

Tackling these two health crises, the Nasa study concludes, would also be the most effective short-term way of slowing climate change. Its research shows that the "strongest leverage" on reducing global warming would be achieved by "reducing emissions from domestic fuel burning" in developing countries, particularly in Asia, and by "reduction in surface transport emissions in North America", especially from diesel engines.

In both cases solutions are known. Cookers using solar energy or biogas, for example, eliminate smoke. And last month California brought in measures to force trucks to fit filters to reduce diesel soot emissions by 85 per cent, estimating that they would save 9,400 lives over the next 16 years.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee