[And it should be noted, so does the Rabett, who doesn’t deserve second billing but I hope he would agree that when dropping names, the weightier the better.]
Say what you want about Jimmy Inhofe (and I do). He may be the US Senate’s most outspoken denialist, a Birther-coddler, someone who thinks God caused the attacks of 9/11 because of US pressure on Israel during Mideast peace talks, and perhaps most heinously of all, the man who gave us Marc Morano. But when he’s right, he’s right. And at least on black carbon, he’s actually with the good guys. So much for my simple rule of thumb “Listen to what Jimmy says and believe exactly the opposite.”
Black-carbon (BC) is a type of common particulate pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass- particularly coal, wood, and dung. It’s perhaps better known as “soot”- you know, that black stuff that chimney sweeps are always covered in.
So why do we care about black-carbon? After all, it’s not like chimney sweeps are that common. There can’t be that much black-carbon around, and even if there was, so what? So a few people get a little dirty cleaning it up, right?
Not so much. The obvious thing about black-carbon is that it’s, well, black. Dark colored substances like BC cause warming via the albedo effect. Additionally, inhaling the stuff isn’t particularly good for you. Think about how much of the world can’t rely on natural gas or electric for cooking and heating. How many places lack the vehicle regulations pertaining to air quality that prevent soot-belchers from dominating shipping. The aggregate impact is, as the kids say, nontrivial. An estimated nearly 2 million people in developing countries die annually from BC and related emissions from indoor fires (predominantly for cooking) alone. Per ton, BC outwarms CO2 by a factor of 600.
So what to do about it? Enter Andrew Grieshop, Conor Reynolds, Milind Kandlikar, and Hadi Dowlatabadi, who have a Commentary out in the most recent issue of Nature Geoscience entitled A black-carbon mitigation wedge (or here). If you’re not familiar with the concept of stabilization wedges, please read about it here (especially the flash movie here) and in Pacala and Socolow’s 2004 paper here. The long and the short of it is that if we want to avoid dangerous warming, we need to employ a series of solutions- call them wedges- that each represent a chunk of emissions growth avoided and thus step us down from the potential future.
Potential wedges range from increasing the average fuel efficiency for 2 billion cars from 30 mpg to 60 mpg, to increasing conservation tillage of cropland. Each represents 25 gigatons of carbon avoided over 50 years using technology available now. Grieshop et al. propose that substantial reductions in BC can comprise a full 50-year emissions reduction wedge. Doing so would have the added benefit, and political incentive, of avoiding the awful health problems associated with exposure to BC, which particularly plague the developing world. It’s technologically feasible, politically non-contentious, desirable independent of climate concerns for the developing world.
So what does this all really have to do with James Inhofe? On the one hand, not much. He’s no longer chairing the relevant Senate Committee for climate legislation; he’s a useful hook for the blog post. But on the other, if even morons and spiteful obstructionists like Inhofe can get behind cutting BC, it’s something we should be aggressively pushing. Globally. Now. Along with energy efficiency, it represents some of the “lowest hanging fruit” that developing nations can pick without getting bogged down in fights over mandatory emissions targets.
Much has been made over the fact that in the US, our current attempt at climate legislation (ACES, aka Waxman-Markey) doesn’t even have the word “climate” in its name. While I think it’s easy to read too much into such trivia, the underlying point is valid: naked emissions targets aren’t the easiest sell to a public concerned with the economy, be it in Washington, Bejing, or New Delhi. Fortunately individual wedges like BC reduction can prove more politically palatable than their aggregate goal.