Black carbon over northern India (Image source: NASA)

You think you know but you have no idea… about global warming, that is. Some estimates state that 18% of global warming is caused by something called black carbon, most of it coming from the developing world: Asia, Latin America and Africa – especially India and China. Black carbon is basically soot. Produced mainly by the burning of biomass and by diesel combustion engines, as well as coal, black carbon is fast acting and stays in the air for only a few weeks before falling to the ground in the familiar form of soot. CO2, on the other hand, can remain in the sky for hundreds of years. Also unlike CO2, which increases the essential greenhouse effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, ‘black carbon in the air actually absorbs sunlight as it comes from space, directly heating up the atmosphere’.

A recent Time Magazine article explains that black carbon is in the coveted position of No.2 contributor to climate change, behind perennial favorite CO2. The key difference is that if we reduce CO2 now, there will still be tons up there that will keep heating up the Earth for years to come, but if we cut out black carbon, the effects would be almost immediate. Black carbon also causes respiratory disease and hastens the melting of glaciers. Look, it’s just bad, OK?

What’s good – or at least simpler – about black carbon is that cutting back on emissions should be easier than with CO2: upgrading diesel engines or phasing them out, replacing biomass burning stoves with gas or solar and ‘cutting down’ on deforestation – especially slash and burn techniques – entail less difficulties than the whole CO2 mess. Which isn’t to say that the reduction of CO2 emissions and those of methane and nitrogen, for that matter, aren’t of extreme importance. The point is that they all should be addressed and dealt with at COP15, the upcoming UNFCCC summit in Copenhagen.

The fact that most black carbon is emitted by the developing world puts a different kind of emphasis on sustainable development than the question of CO2 – one that poorer countries should see more of an immediate benefit in. According to a New York Times article from April, less glacial melt equals less flooding and more sustained water flow, resulting in fewer or less extreme droughts. Less soot also means fewer premature deaths and burning solar or gas stoves means more energy efficiency. All these equal a more prosperous and livable environment for sustainable development and just plain survival.

Video from Earthjustice: Stop Soot, Black Carbon and Global Warming

Additional resources:

Black carbon wiki