Black Carbon, or Soot, a Source of Global Warming

Black Carbon, or soot, has been indentified as the number two source of global warming, after carbon dioxide (CO2). According to The New York Times, soot accounts for up to 18 percent of the planet’s warming, in comparison with CO2, which is seen causing 40 percent. Decreasing soot emissions by replacing wood-burning cooking stoves with more efficient models in developing countries may be a quick-win in bringing down global temperatures. “Decreasing black carbon emissions would be a relatively cheap way to significantly rein in global warming — especially in the short term, climate experts say. Replacing primitive cooking stoves with modern versions that emit far less soot could provide a much-needed stopgap, while nations struggle with the more difficult task of enacting programs and developing technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.”

Soot particles have a powerful impact because, being dark in color, they absorb heat. As they move from developing countries and settle in cold polar regions, they land on ice and speed melting. The New York Times writes: “One recent study estimated that black carbon might account for as much as half of Arctic warming. While the particles tend to settle over time and do not have the global reach of greenhouse gases, they do travel, scientists now realize. Soot from India has been found in the Maldive Islands and on the Tibetan Plateau; from the United States, it travels to the Arctic. The environmental and geopolitical implications of soot emissions are enormous.”

Limiting the amount of soot in the atmosphere could also have rapid, positive effects. “Unlike carbon dioxide, which lingers in the atmosphere for years, soot stays there for a few weeks. Converting to low-soot cookstoves would remove the warming effects of black carbon quickly, while shutting a coal plant takes years to substantially reduce global CO2 concentrations.” However, getting rid of the small, inefficient wood-burning stoves in countries like India is a challenge. There are millions spread throughout villages, replacements cost money, and food cooked on high-tech solar stoves doesn’t taste the same.

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Photo credit: Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

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