Combating Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs)

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Photo: The automotive fleet is a source of black carbon emissions. Credit: Érick Ávila/
When greenhouse gases are mentioned, we immediately think of the huge coal-fired power plants that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. It’s true. CO2 emissions from highly industrialized countries are the chief cause of climate change. But they’re not the only cause.
Climate change is caused by dozens of pollutants that trap heat in the atmosphere. Along with CO2, short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) are another cause. They are responsible for 40% to 45% of global warming. The main pollutants of in this category are black carbon (or soot), tropospheric ozone, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
While CO2 – source of 55% to 60% of the problem – remains in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia after emission, the life of the SLCPs is much shorter: just a few days or decades. This makes reducing these pollutants an opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change in the short term and thus reduce the rate of global warming for the next two to four decades. This would help avoid abrupt changes in the climate to the benefit of the vulnerable regions of planet already being affected.
A reduction in SLCP emissions also would bring significant social benefits. Black carbon and tropospheric ozone pollute the air and pose risks for respiratory and heart disease, contributing to millions of premature deaths each year. These pollutants, especially tropospheric ozone, also have a serious impact on crop yields, so its control could improve food security globally.
These are some of the reasons why AIDA is working to raise awareness and educate public policy makers on the importance of controlling SLCP emissions in the Americas. In 2010, we published a memorandum (in Spanish) with basic information to educate decision makers about simple policies designed specifically to eliminate emissions of black carbon.
Then in 2013, when the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) on climate change was held in Warsaw, Poland, AIDA worked with CEDHA, CEMDA and RedRacc to develop an informative document (in Spanish) explaining SLCPs, the main pollutants in this category and the reasons to regulate and reduce their emission. We also offered recommendations to take on the challenge.
The main SLCPs:
Black carbon is a particulate material produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass mainly in motor vehicles, household stoves, fires and industrial factories. It contributes to global warming by emitting heat through dark particles that absorb light, accelerating the melting of ice and snow when they fall on these surfaces and disrupting rainfall patterns by affecting clouds.
Tropospheric ozone is a gas not emitted directly but formed by the reaction of sunlight with so-called precursor gases, which may be natural or man-made (one of which is methane).
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas whose emissions come 60% from human activities, mainly rice farming, coal mining, landfills, burning oil, livestock and large dams, especially those located in tropical areas.
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are pollutants made by man to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which were banned by the Montreal Protocol. HFCs are used mainly for manufacturing air conditioners, refrigeration systems and aerosols. Although HFCs still only represent a small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, their presence is expected to increase if no action is taken.
Mitigating CO2 is vital if we hope to maintain a balance in the climate over the long term, but focusing exclusively on this task isn’t enough or efficient for the short and medium term. Mitigating CO2 must then be combined with reducing SLCP emissions, which account for nearly half of climate change.
AIDA is working to not waste the opportunity. Reducing SLCP emissions would bring benefits in the short term for the climate and public health, and it would also give us time to implement and adapt to a low CO2 economy to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change from coming about.
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