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What’s Soot Got to Do With It?

By Andrew Freedman, Climate Central

Most of the discussion regarding the highly anticipated Senate energy and climate change legislation, which Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced last week following months of negotiations, has focused on the bill’s provisions pertaining to offshore oil and gas drilling, incentives for renewable energy, and cap on carbon emissions for certain economic sectors.

Although the bill’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction targets–an 80 percent emissions cut by 2050 compared to 2005 levels–would yield significant long-term climate benefits, the bill also addresses man-made climate change in the shorter term.

Stack emissions from a bulk freighter in San Francisco Bay. Photo: Craig Miller

Stack emissions from a bulk freighter in San Francisco Bay. Photo: Craig Miller

A little-noticed portion of the bill concerns short-lived air pollutants such as black carbon (otherwise known as soot) and tropospheric ozone. These pollutants disrupt the climate on far shorter timescales than CO2, which scientists consider the most important greenhouse gas and the main villain in the climate change story.

Once emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, the use of solid-fuel cooking stoves or biomass burning, among other sources, black carbon only stays aloft for days to a few weeks before being washed out of the atmosphere by precipitation. This means that once black carbon emissions are reduced, there would be almost immediate climate benefits.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill would direct the US EPA to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce black carbon emissions from diesel engines, using devices called diesel particulate filters which trap soot emissions before they escape from a vehicle’s tailpipe.

It would also call upon the EPA to publish a report on black carbon “sources, impacts, and reduction opportunities,” including an examination of how foreign assistance programs could help reduce emissions in other nations. In addition, the bill would establish an inter-agency process to facilitate “fast mitigation strategies” that focus on non-CO2 warming agents. This process would involve agencies such as the EPA and the Energy Department (DOE).

How big a climate player is black carbon?

Black carbon is thought to be a powerful warming agent in many regions, particularly snow and ice-covered areas such as the Himalayas and the Arctic. As its name suggests, black carbon particles are dark in color, and are therefore strong absorbers of incoming solar radiation. They warm the atmosphere and alter cloud characteristics, and when they land on brightly colored snow and ice, they darken the surface, causing a large uptick in the absorption of solar radiation, which hastens melting.

In the Arctic, black carbon contributes to a feedback loop that has helped cause a rapid melting of sea ice cover and drive temperatures upward at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world. The decade from 1999-2008 was the warmest ten-year period in the Arctic of the past 2,000 years, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2009.

In addition to Arctic warming, black carbon has been shown to alter regional climate patterns such as the Indian monsoon, and human inhalation of soot particles is known to be a major health hazard worldwide.

In recent years numerous scientists, most prominently V. (Ram) Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and James Hansen of NASA have called for significant cuts in short-lived air pollutants as a way to reduce climate change in the near term, while efforts continue to address CO2 emissions in the long run. Ramanathan’s studies have shown that black carbon may be the second largest contributor to global climate change.

In March testimony before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, Ramanathan stated that the current global warming effect of black carbon “may be as much as 60 percent” of the CO2 warming effect. He noted, however, that there are significant uncertainties about black carbon’s role in the climate system.

Ramanathan told House lawmakers that reducing black carbon emissions “may provide a possible mechanism for buying time to develop and implement effective steps for reducing CO2 emissions.”

Bill is aligned with recent scientific advice

The Kerry-Lieberman bill’s inclusion of rapid mitigation strategies is consistent with advice contained in a new paper from an interdisciplinary panel of scholars, published on May 11 by the University of Oxford in the UK. The paper argues that non-CO2 drivers of climate change have been overlooked “for reasons of convenience in framing policy” rather than due to scientific concerns, and it presents a vision for an overhaul of climate policy that would include a much more prominent role for addressing emissions of short-lived air pollutants.

“Since action on these non-CO2 ‘forcers’ may have quicker impact and large, immediate primary benefits, we would give them priority, now. In contrast to long and arduous tasks, these can be ‘quick hits’,” the report states.

The bill’s provisions are also consistent with the findings of a scientific panel that examined options to address rapid Arctic climate change. In a 2008 report, the panel strongly endorsed pursuing emissions reductions of black carbon and other short-lived air pollutants. “…Curbing short-lived climate forcing agents, through rapid international action and Arctic nation leadership, may prove to be the best and perhaps only viable strategy for slowing Arctic warming in the time frame of years to a decade,” the report stated.

Considering that the Kerry-Lieberman bill itself faces a highly uncertain future, with significant resistance in both political parties, it may yet take even longer to address what many experts consider to be a ripe, low hanging fruit of the climate challenge. This does not bode well, given the much more difficult work that lies ahead to reduce CO2 and other longer-lasting greenhouse gases.

In April, Molly Samuel reported on the effects of black carbon and snow albedo on the California’s water forecasting efforts.

States Bridle Against “One-Size” Carbon Rules

Next week the US Senate will take the wraps off a long-awaited national energy and climate bill, which–even before its unveiling–is already making California businesses and regulators nervous.

Though exact language has not been revealed, the compromise bill reportedly includes sections that would nullify state and regional programs to regulate carbon emissions. That does not sit well with Mary Nichols, California’s chief carbon regulator. “When it comes to energy policy and the environment, one size truly does not fit all,” Nichols told reporters in a Tuesday conference call. Nichols chairs the California Air Resources Board, which is the lead agency charged with implementing the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006.

The state has already invested three years and more than $100 million dollars (approximately $40 million per year, according to a policy brief issued last week by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office), laying the groundwork for sweeping new regulations, including a carbon trading scheme with several other Western states. The regional cap-and-trade program known as the Western Climate Initiative could also be jeopardized by the current Senate bill, though from most appearances, the program is already languishing.

Businesses also have much at stake. Jan Smutny-Jones heads the Independent Energy Producers Association, whose members generate almost half the electric power produced in California. “My members are making literally billion-dollar decisions about infrastructure that’s going to be around in California generating electricity or transporting electricity to customers for the next 40-50 years, and they kind of need to know sooner rather than later, in terms of what the actual rules of the road are gonna be,” Smutny-Jones told me in his Sacramento office on Monday. “Having the rules change is disruptive,” he said.

California Senator Barbara Boxer, who co-sponsored the first Senate version of the bill last fall, says she does “not support federal preemption” but also wants to avoid overlap between the state and federal systems. “It depends on how the bill is written,” Boxer told reporters at the recent state Democratic Convention. “I’ve had environmentalists say ‘Well if we do a trading system on the credits, we want one system, we don’t want two systems,’ so there’s some areas where it may make sense.”

Nichols offered little latitude in her remarks on Tuesday.  “We need to put down a marker here and remind the senators that they will not have an effective climate program without the states,” she said. “We don’t want there to be any room for doubt about whether states are permitted to do things that advance their economic and energy agendas.” Nichols cited large amounts of “green” venture capital flowing into California as fruit already borne by the state’s actions toward reducing carbon emissions.

The Senate bill is expected to be rolled out on Monday. Optimists are hoping that a finished bill could reach the Senate floor by June or July, according to a report from Reuters news service.