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Fighting Soot May Be Key to Short-Term Climate Change Relief

The struggle against global warming took a new turn recently as climate change experts discovered that soot emissions are the second-biggest contributor to rising global temperatures, after carbon dioxide (CO2).

Also known as “black carbon,” soot is responsible for 18 percent of global warming, while carbon dioxide is responsible for 40 percent. However, unlike reducing carbon dioxide, which has to be managed by governments over a long period of time and is incredibly complex and expensive, immediate solutions are available for reducing black carbon emissions.

In India, for example, organizations such as New Delhi’s Energy and Resource Institute are working to replace millions of primitive mud stoves with modern versions that expel less soot. In addition to improving the respiratory health of those who are in close proximity to them, the new stoves will give short-term environmental relief while nations grapple with how to curb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. “In terms of climate change we’re driving fast toward a cliff, and this could buy us time,” Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate change expert who is working to help disadvantaged families get new stoves, told the New York Times.

The impact of black carbon has come as something of a surprise to the scientists who saw no need to include it as a warming factor in the UN’s major 2007 report on climate change. It was only in April this year that a study showed that soot from industry, vehicles, farming, and the burning of wood fuel has been responsible for half the total temperature increases in the Arctic during the past century.

Although measures are being taken to reduce black carbon emissions, its presence in regions such as the Himalayas is cause for concern. On this issue, Al Gore has been vocal; the Guardian reports Gore stating that “the principal [climate change] problem is carbon dioxide, but a new understanding is emerging of soot. Black carbon is settling in the Himalayas. The air pollution levels in the upper Himalayas are now similar to those in Los Angeles.”

The environmental, social, and geopolitical implications of high levels of soot are potentially catastrophic. Yao Tandong, a researcher with the Chinese academy of sciences, told the Guardian that glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau — from where 40 percent of the world derives its fresh water — are melting quickly. “This is causing severe social problems as lakes get bigger and people are forced to move. Himalayan glaciers are mostly retreating at an accelerating rate,” he warned.

For more information about black carbon, Earthjustice has put together a short, informative video ( about the impact of soot and steps individuals can take to fight it.

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