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29 June 2010

Black carbon’s global warming role ‘still unproven’

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The fine dust particles emitted from burning wood or fuel, referred to as black carbon, are "likely to play a role in climate change" but should not divert attention away from carbon dioxide, EU officials said.

Black carbon has recently been the focus of attention after some studies identified it as a major contributor to global warming, coming second only to CO2.

Dark smoke fuming from burning forests, the exhaust pipes of diesel cars or kitchen stoves that burn biomass absorbs sunlight and captures it as heat in the Earth's atmosphere, according to researchers. Moreover, it can affect precipitation patterns and cloud formation.

But EU policymakers speaking in Brussels yesterday (22 June) cautioned that more research must be carried out to ascertain its impact more accurately.

"From the scientific point of view, it is not that certain yet," said Frank Raes, head of the climate change unit at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC).

However, he said black carbon was "likely" to contribute to climate change.

In addition to climate change, the health implications of particulate pollution make a compelling case for tackling black carbon, speakers agreed. Like other small particulates, it causes premature death and respiratory disease, they claimed.

Raes argued that the regional impacts of black carbon may be even more significant than its global warming effect. In the Arctic or the Himalayas, for instance, soot settling on ice and snow cover is accelerating melt rates, he said.

While CO2 remains the biggest global warming culprit, the advantage of tackling black carbon is that it is short-lived and can therefore have a beneficial impact on the climate only 5-10 years after its emissions are cut.


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