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Remarks by Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson to a Meeting and Panel Discussion at the European Parliament on Black Carbon

Small Particle, Big Problem: the Emerging Link Between Black Carbon and Climate Change

Brussels, 22 June 2010—Graham Watson MEP and our chair; distinguished panellists, guests and friends,

I think it is a good and timely idea- less than six months before the next UN climate convention meeting- to take a long hard look at Black Carbon.

UNEP's involvement in this issue dates back some nine years when the former UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer, was taken up in a light aircraft over the Himalayas.

He and colleagues at UNEP were astonished by the photos taken that day—a bright blue sky; bright white ice caps and then this huge band of brown smeared across the mountain range.

Dr Toepfer immediately commissioned a study from the scientists concerned—researchers linked with what is known as the INDOEX experiment.

That report was launched in advance of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

The response was quite remarkable, both publicly and politically.

Publicly because the world's media latched onto the story with a frenzy rarely seen—indeed I was even fielding interviews from horse racing radio stations in places like Sydney Australia such was the interest.

Politically, because some nations in Asia felt UNEP was deflecting the responsibility for climate change away from the industrialized countries to the rapidly developing ones.

Despite this, UNEP's work on the science has continued through the UNEP-sponsored Project Atmospheric Brown Cloud work.

This is spearheaded by Professor Ramanathan at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California and Paul Crutzen, the distinguished Dutch Nobel Prize winning chemist.

This and the work of others is bringing the science to a point of maturity that can allow policy-makers to begin to act.

Black Carbon also falls within the wider debate on non-C02 pollutants, inspired in part by the success of the UNEP-hosted Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer.

As you may know, the phase-out of substances such as CFCs in products like hairsprays and refrigerators, has not only put the Earth's ultra-violet filtering shield back on the road to recovery.

It has also bought us some time in terms of the climate change challenge.

This is at the heart of our current Green Economy Initiative—in a world of scarce financial resources, every Euro, Dollar, Rupee or Yuan needs to deal with multiple challenges to deliver multiple opportunities.

Black carbon falls fairly and squarely into such agenda offering quick wins and social, environmental and economic gains across a suite of challenges, from climate change to public health, water supplies and improved crop production and thus food security.

So what of policy? If we are to deal with Black Carbon, where should the international community focus its efforts?

There are many choices, but perhaps there are some quick and some even quicker and even more cost effective wins if we see the challenge as regional and global.

Let me perhaps briefly explore some possible directions and forgive me a little if I play a bit fast and loose or perhaps naively with the science.


Firstly, there is still a need to strengthen the science and the science policy-interface.

Black Carbon, and its chemistry; links with other emissions and impacts are- despite the growing maturity of the research- still contested, highly complex and potentially confusing to many policy-makers.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fourth assessment synthesis report lumped together heating aerosols like Black Carbon and cooling agents such as suphur and nitrate particles.

The IPCC's fifth assessment is expected to address these issues and devote more time to particles. It will be important to ensure this is indeed the case.

However, (and this is not meant to be a plug for UNEP) one quick way to build both the science and the policy interface could be for developed economies to strengthen the capacity of developing country scientists via Project ABC.

Bringing precision to the precise contribution Black Carbon makes to global warming and the amounts individual nations are producing, will also be an important step towards bringing this pollutant into a carbon fund—as is emerging with forests under the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD)—or perhaps eventually into formal carbon markets.

We have a parallel here with marine ecosystems.

Last year UNEP and partners launched a Blue Carbon report indicating that mangroves; sea grasses and salt marshes may be absorbing emissions equal to half the world's transport emissions.

But bringing this forward at the last UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen proved elusive.

Not because countries contest the principle or the underlying science. But because they felt the requirement for more precision on the actual amounts sequestered and how these may vary under different management regimes, country settings and geographical locales.

Do We Know Enough to Act and if So How and Where?

In mentioning the science however, we do know enough to act.

While there are differing estimates on the contribution of black carbon to climate change, even the low end is significant, and the upper end of the estimates is down right sobering.

Last year, and in the run up to the Copenhagen, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner raised the issue of black carbon and non C02 pollutants at the World Climate Conference in Geneva.

At the time the world was struggling to broker cooperation on emission reductions between developed and developing economies.

The logic of Mr Steiner's intervention was this: While C02 must remain the overarching target, supporting action on Black Carbon by rapidly developing economies could deliver quick wins.

This would demonstrate their determination to be part of the solution, whilst buying time for the developed economies to prove they are serious about cutting C02.

A partnership of this kind could also buy time for new clean tech, technologies to penetrate further and farther around the globe.

In many ways the outcome of Copenhagen makes this policy direction easier.

Because, while the Copenhagen was not the big breakthrough many had hoped, it was neither a big breakdown.

Indeed just before and since, many developing economies have submitted pledges to de-couple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions joining with developed economies and new emission reduction targets.

As the world struggles to articulate what can be achieved at the next UN climate convention meeting in Cancun, Mexico later this year, perhaps substantial progress on Black carbon and non –C02 pollutants might prove a fruitful direction.

There is an existing proposal on the table by the Federated States of Micronesia for a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Work program for Rapid, Near-Term Climate Mitigation, looking for wider international support.

There are precedents.

Developed and developing economies in 2007 agreed to a stepping up of a freeze and phase-out of the gases HCFCs under the Montreal Protocol specifically for the climate benefits.

Both treaties are now working closer on mutual climate benefits.

Alternative Paths to the Climate Convention Route

The climate change convention route is one way forward—as we know, if can be a fraught path.

Even if Black Carbon had no impact on climate change (which clearly it does), there are numerous economic and health reasons to curb emissions now anyway.

It is a key component of air pollution.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.6 million people a year die from indoor and outdoor air pollution.

In India it may be responsible for an estimated 3.5 per cent of the disease burden and in Africa countries such as Mali, Malawi and Rwanda the figure rises to five per cent.

An additional 800,000 premature deaths are caused each year by urban air pollution with black carbon a key factor.

  • 'Dimming' of between 10-25 per cent is occurring over cities such as Karachi, Beijing, Shanghai and New Delhi

  • Guangzhou is among several cities that have recorded a more than 20 per cent reduction in sunlight since the 1970s

  • For India as a whole, the dimming trend has been running at about two per cent per decade between 1960 and 2000—more than doubling between 1980 and 2004.

  • "In China the observed dimming trend from the 1950s to the 1990s was about 3-4 per cent per decade, with the larger trends after the 1970s," says the latest UNEP Project ABC report.

In terms of agriculture.

  • Effects may include damage linked with the various acidic and toxic particles from brown clouds depositing on plants from the atmosphere

  • Reduced levels of photosynthesis and thus crop production due to 'dimming'

Project ABC suggests that five regional hot spots for Atmospheric Brown Clouds containing Black Carbon have been indentified.

  • These are East Asia, covering eastern China.

  • The Indo-Gangetic plains in South Asia from the northwest and northeast regions of eastern Pakistan across India to Bangladesh and Myanmar.

  • Southeast Asia, covering Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

  • Southern Africa extending southwards from sub-Saharan Africa into Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe

  • The Amazon Basin in South America.

But the best evidence indicates that developing countries in the tropical belt, and in particular China and India, are producing the lion's share of man-made Black Carbon.

Cooking and Heating—the Quickest Win of All?

And that in terms of emissions, a significant amount comes from inefficient cooking and household heating systems.

Indeed according to Swedish researchers such as Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University, assisting the three billion people who currently cook on solid fuels; fuel wood; agricultural wastes; charcoal; dung and coal, to cleaner fuels could deliver perhaps the most cost effective gains for human health, poverty eradication; climate and the wider environment.

Mitigation costs could be as little as a few cents per tonne, up to a few dollars a tonne per C02 equivalent.

Perhaps this represents the quickest and most cost effective of the 'quick wins' or low hanging fruit when compared with, for example, tighter measures of diesel engines or retrofitting of diesel vehicle engines with particle traps.

There are already several good pilot projects up and running to boost the efficiency of rural cooking stoves in Asia including one called Suraya linked with Project ABC.

UNEP has provided seed money of around $150,000 to this which over the past five years has catalyzed $4-$5 million in additional funding.

It is on its tenth village in India—but with an estimated 800,000 villages in India alone, there something of a way to go.

Fortunately, the Indian Prime Minister has become involved and there is every chance that the project will be funded by central and regional governments.

In August, UNEP will also meet with the Rockefeller Foundation to see how they can assist.

However, other vast tracts of the region await support and we currently have requests from Nepal, Bhutan, Laos and other for assistance. This does not include the challenges elsewhere in the developing world including Africa. Support from the European Commission and governments would be most welcome.

One possible model might be linked with a solar loans project UNEP carried out in partnership with the UN Foundation and the Shell Foundation.

By working with local banks, this brought solar to 100,000 people in rural India in a matter of years and is now self-financing. It is now being replicated in Mexico.

Supportive Policies

National health laws and regional agreements such as ASEAN can play their part. Europe and other developed economies could also play a big role in catalyzing a switch by aligning multilateral and bilateral development support towards such sectors.

The World Bank and regional development banks also have a role to play as have philanthropic bodies.

On the scientific front, there remains a need not only for building the capacity of developing country scientists, but also the monitoring network.

Project ABC has identified a need for an additional four stations in Africa and around five in Latin America.

Along with calibration and other technical and practical support, an additional two million Euro is perhaps urgently needed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Black Carbon remains a scientific challenge, but we know enough now to act for climate but also wider benefits.

There are many areas where individual countries and the international community can assist to turn down the black carbon tap.

In Northern waters, tighter control of emissions from shipping can reduce the risk of black carbon contaminating Arctic ice and increasing its sensitivity to melting.

Studies in the United States indicate that fitting particle traps to one million semi-trailer trucks would, over 20 years, yield climate benefits equal to taking over 160,000 trucks or 5.7 million cars off the road.

But given the evidence on the sources, and the fact that black carbon can travel far past national borders, it is perhaps in the developing world and perhaps especially in Asia where Europe can play its most decisive and high impact card.

Both in terms of building scientific capacity and monitoring capability, and by federating action on the ground to the benefit of the world's poor and to the citizens of Europe in terms of reducing local pollution and the global risks of climate change.




Further Resources

UNEP: Green Economy Initiative

UN Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)


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