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Black Carbon Reduction vs. Carbon Dioxide Reduction: Is a Short Term Solution to Global Warming Better than a Long One?

September 16, 2016

 

So, everyone knows that carbon dioxide is the number one contributor to climate change, but what is lesser known is the number two cause: smog.

 

The black smog, discovered a few years ago by many institutions and environmental projects, including those at Yale University, as being the second most contributor to global warming, is commonly attributed to Asian countries such as China. According to Hannah Hickey, an environmental reporter from Washington Post, the black carbon, found within smog releases dark particles into the air that mask the surface of the planet while simultaneously warming the atmosphere. Specifically, the black carbon completely alters the surface fluxes and radiation of heat and moisture within the atmosphere. Contrary to common belief, black carbon found in smog is a solid, not a gas like carbon dioxide. Although it can sometimes only a few nanometers in diameter, the abundance of it in the air in the form of clusters makes it a viable force to cover the Earth’s surface. In extreme cases, black carbon can also range to tens of micrometers in rocks.

 

Not only does smog contribute to global warming, but black carbon also has personal consequences to our health by promoting poor air quality and contributing to the prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases to the exposed. No wonder so many citizens in China, a country with one of the largest percentages of black smog, wear pollution masks outside. Eliminating black carbon would seem to in turn annhilate a lot of our problems, right? Not exactly. Unlike carbon dioxide, eliminating black smog could potentially only be a short term and temporary solution to lessening global warming, with only small improvements to the climate change situation. Why? Carbon dioxide contains a one hundred year half-life, meaning it takes much longer than smog (which only remains in the atmosphere for a couple of days) to decompose. Thus, it would be much faster to dispose of black carbon from the atmosphere.

 

In 2009, the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry Project congregated to conclude that regulating smog over carbon dioxide “would have the greatest immediate cooling impact” worldwide. However, it should be noted that focusing on smog alone would not solve the contemporary climate change issue presented to us today. It is the overload of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today that makes it the number one contributor to global warming. Caused by an excess of daily human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, carbon dioxide is much more prevalent in the world than smog- so commonplace that it seems almost impossible to completely eliminate it from our atmosphere. And the rate of carbon dioxide distribution into the air seems to keep growing day by day.

 

Suppose we do miraculously get rid of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, perhaps with policy changes and new energy sources; how long will this actually take? According to Sarah Doherty, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Washington who led the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reducing black carbon found in smog will simply buy us time, but the real permanent solution to global warming is cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions.

 

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