Global warming shifting from CO2 to soot and methane

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In this Oct. 12, 2005 file photo, a drought affects the water levels of Anama Lake along the Amazon River, 168 kilometers from Manaus, Brazil. In 2005, the water level of the Amazon dropped by several feet because of a months long drought, halting travel and harming the important fishing industry. From Chile to Colombia to Mexico, Latin America has been battered recently by wildfires, floods and droughts. While leading climate scientists are unable to pin any single flood or heat wave solely on climate change, experts say the number of extreme weather events is increasing worldwide and the evidence suggests global warming is having an impact. (AP Photo/Luiz Vasconcelos, Interfoto, File)

My daughter was still a baby when we got our first own home in Bucaramanga, Colombia. A pretty two-story house, it had a large backyard where my girl had enjoyable days in her inflatable pool. It was “all good” until soot started to fall.

In those days, not many regulations were in place to prevent the neighbor who bought the house behind ours to operate a soot-producing small factory. Sadly, it was us who eventually had to move out of the house to stop breathing dirty air!

In addition to having learned in medical school that carbon mining was associated with a dreadful lung condition, pneumoconiosis, and being aware of something as evident as that soot blemished the linens that I hung to dry in the backyard, we knew little about its effects on our planet.

Carbon dioxide is the big culprit but…

Now that science has established that human activity is indeed responsible for a great deal of climate change and its devastating consequences, we pay heed to the talk.

If you watched Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth film, you’re clear like me that because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, it is the main culprit for global warming. Less has been said about soot and methane. Notwithstanding, methane can remain in the atmosphere for 9 to 15 years and is 23 percent more effective than CO2 in trapping heat. A 2007 Stanford University study established that carbon dioxide accounted for 48 percent of the warming problem, followed by soot, 16 percent, and methane, 14 percent.

Science magazine recently published a study led by NASA scientist, Drew Shindell, which assures it might be easier and quicker to reduce methane and soot to slow down global warming. They propose to apply global methods that have already been proven to work locally like starting in Africa and Asia where the emission of methane and soot seems worse. The report provides no details on the methods that would be utilized to capture pollutants.

Soot isn’t a new demon at all

Since the early decades of the industrial revolution when machines were fed with coal, and homes had coal furnaces and short chimneys, the countryside, the industrial areas and some cities in England were blanketed with soot.

In response to “the big smog” of 1952, when certain atmospheric conditions favored a collection of soot and dirt that clouded London for four days, the United Kingdom passed the Clean Air act of 1956. Similar regulations followed in some U.S. industrial cities, but soot continues to be a problem in countries like India and China.

Soot, with dust and aerosols from biomass burning and from man-made pollution, contributes to create the droughts that affect the planet and is responsible for as many as 4.7 million deaths worldwide. Some of these deaths are related to the use of coal stoves in many Third World countries.

When science established how damaging the emissions coming from burning coal (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, among others) were for the environment, clean coal technologies and the use of other fuels (like natural gas) developed to remove or reduce the pollution of the atmosphere. But, more needs to be done and can be done.

Methane emissions also cause for concern

Methane comes from landfills (think again before you fill up your garbage bin with stuff you could reuse or recycle). It also comes from natural gas and petroleum systems, agricultural activities (rice paddies), coal mining, wastewater treatment and some industrial processes. But the world’s 1.5 billion cows and other grazing animals also emit methane when they belch and, well… pass gas. And who would say that a cow’s daily contribution to pollution is equivalent to that produced by a car in one day?

(Parenthesis to give you a hint of nature’s wisdom: In another study researchers found that acid rain produced by soot from industrial pollution in China can reduce methane emissions from their rice paddies!)

It’s reassuring to know that an increasing number of scientists are taking interest in finding solutions to global warming. I salute the idea of new jobs created to apply those solutions and feel very happy knowing that nationwide the number of gas-fired plants has risen by more than 50 percent over the past ten years.

On the other hand, only 64 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening and only 47 percent consider humans responsible for it.  I hesitate to feel too hopeful in a world where financial interests and not the Summum Bonum runs the picture. Besides, in the past, some of the environmental solutions heralded with bombos y platillos have created new problems, like is the case with solar radiation management. It was thought to decrease electricity use, but it may actually increase the chances of drought. Or in the case of recycling…but this needs to be the subject of another blog.

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