The Black Carbon Solution

January 16, 2013

By Matt Palmer

A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres shows that climate impacts from soot or black carbon has twice the impact on climate warming than previously thought. A great deal of the black carbon being emitted in the developing world comes from diesel engines, plus some wood and some coal. Here is a link to the article referring to the study, and a quote:

The report’s best estimate of direct climate influence by black carbon is about a factor of two higher than most previous work, including the estimates in the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment released in 2007, which were based on the best available evidence and analysis at that time.

The conclusions support action in reducing poverty in the developing world by providing access to more modern vehicle fleets and motive technology, and better technology for in-home heating and cooking.

Early in my research for this project, I remember finding an article pointing to black carbon as a relatively quick way to deal with greenhouse gases. Addressing black carbon and poverty can yield many benefits beyond climate. By providing modern cooking stoves, families that burn wood, charcoal or dung in small one room domiciles will no longer breathe in harmful fumes. The health outcomes will save lives and money. Saving lives is one step in reducing population, as many families have more children to ensure they have multiple off-spring to help with supporting the family, taking into account that mortality rates for children in these countries is high.

Healthy cooking and heating options when combined with better education, particularly for girls and women, reduces population. When women have access to better education, they have fewer children.

The report clearly indicates that reducing black carbon will have impacts on climate both locally and in the northern hemisphere. BUT, caution is necessary as there will be other impacts from reducing black carbon.

The international team urges caution because the role of black carbon in climate change is complex.  “Black carbon influences climate in many ways, both directly and indirectly, and all of these effects must be considered jointly”, says co-lead author Sarah Doherty of the University of Washington, an expert in snow measurements. The dark particles absorb incoming and scattered heat from the sun (solar radiation); they can promote the formation of clouds that can have either cooling or warming impact; and black carbon can fall on the surface of snow and ice, promoting warming and increasing melting.  In addition, many sources of black carbon also emit other particles whose effects counteract black carbon, providing a cooling effect.

As we look at the myriad of solutions available to society, where we might spend our money and efforts, dealing with black carbon and poverty in the developing world seems like a win-win. I travelled in Kenya and Tanzania, witnessing first hand families living in abject poverty; burning charcoal or dung in small one room huts. The smell was terrible. It was not hard to see that breathing in these fumes day after day was not only impacting the daily quality of life of these people, but shortening their lives: lives that have as much value as our own.


Energy issues are intricately connected with our environment, as well as global social and political structures. Some solutions will inevitably contain more complexity than others, take greater effort, more time, involve higher costs. Measuring results, both successes and failures may take years or decades.

Energy challenges are ever-expanding and changing. Ten years ago there were major concerns about the coming of peak oil, and natural gas was thought to be essentially a depleted resource. Technology, innovation and ingenuity changed that outcome to the point where current predictions account for enough fossil fuels for the planet for centuries. This is our new reality. Like it or not. But if you don’t like it, be prepared to show how humanity exists on this planet without fossil fuels. Examining how we use our resources better is quite different from advocating not using them.

The question is then: can we manage this new reality for the health and well-being of our sacred earth and all life existing on it? While we increase efforts to be more responsible with our carbon assets, diligence in our environmental stewardship, and better balance to our systems, we must not forget that we are carbon based life forms, dependent on our ability to harness a plethora of products from carbon sources, from fossil fuels. Hydrocarbons remain the key to current and future prosperity for all.

Hopefully, what I have written here will spur healthy discussion on these issues. Debate that pulls apart and examines ideas. We need vibrant creative and divergent thinking to address the challenges before us.

Of all the immediate options available to us, and action on multiple fronts in needed, dealing with black carbon, and thereby changing the environmental, health, and economic realities for a few billion people seems like good energy.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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