Does Fighting Climate Change Need to Focus on CO2 Emissions?


There are many forces at work making it difficult to stop global warming.

Many assume that the cost of creating a healthy planet will be astronomical in comparison to the results it will yield — partially because the benefits will be far in the future. The old standby of restricting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases have profound effects, but you can’t see them right away. In effect, the threat of global warming has promoted a less than energetic response from people around the world. However, Science Magazine recently published an article by a group of scientists introducing a new, quick way to save the planet. In fact, they say they can better benefit the earth by focusing on pollutants other than CO2. Their innovative method may be attractive because of speedy results, but it will only put a band-aid on the problem. Instead, we must embrace the new methods while keeping reductions in CO2 emissions at the forefront of the green movement.

Alternative techniques to reductions in CO2 emissions should not be ignored, but they cannot serve as a replacement. Scientists are eager to find new ways to prevent or reverse global warming because burning fewer fossil fuels is not easy.

Politically, there are more than enough obstacles to halt environmental agendas, and they come in the form of big businesses with heavy lobbying influence. Developers, big agribusiness, oil and gas, and other polluters see complying with standards as time and cost consuming, so they pay lots of money and spend lots of time convincing important politicians that preventing greenhouse gas really isn’t the best idea. Even ordinary citizens recoil at the “go green” movement because they won’t experience a cleaner planet with a lower overall temperature, causing a domino effect of less smog, fewer natural disasters, more fresh water, and various other benefits that come with combating global warming. It may take generations before people notice a real change. But people are impatient; they want change now.

Such backlash against cleaning the planet led the scientists from the Science Magazine article to attack black carbon and methane in their attempt to reverse global warming. Black carbon, a consequence of soot from diesel engines and other antiquated technologies, results in a sort of black blanket over snow in areas such as the Arctic and the Himalayas. Instead of the snow reflecting the light from the sun, the black cover absorbs the heat. Methane is a greenhouse gas that promotes tropospheric ozone, a ground-level ozone that is the main component of smog.

In their experiment, the scientists went through a lengthy process of identifying the main causes of warming and air-quality degradation and then whittling the list down to the 14 major sources. They created two categories, each containing seven sources; one group related to black carbon and the other to methane. These 14 sources encompassed 90% of the maximum global warming potential and included targeting emissions from coal mining, wastewater, brick kilns, and other big emitters. If countries around the world implemented the emissions controls to control black carbon and methane, the scientists predict that the “amount of global warming in 2050 would be reduced by about one degree Fahrenheit,” a much greater success than that predicted for strategies based on CO2 emissions.

This new idea is a great addition to the green movement, but even the scientists admit that this project will only have short-term benefits and will have little effect on temperature change in the long run. They note that global warming “depends primarily on CO2 emissions,” and history confirms that it creates the biggest problem. The United States’ greenhouse gas emissions increased by 17% between 1990 and 2007; CO2 was the main culprit. We cannot forget this threat.

Scientific research is essential to progress. New knowledge is always welcome, and this fresh attempt targeting black carbon and methane to save the planet is no different. Perhaps this method would be beneficial in proving the real benefits of reducing emissions. When people see the eventual outcome, they may be more inspired to invest in the long-term projects. But, we must remember to keep concentrated on the main offenders of a healthy planet.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons