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Black Carbon

Diesel: Emissions, Health, and Climate Impacts

Sameer Akbar's picture
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Trucks idling in traffic in Ghana. Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

Playing charades with my nine-year-old over the weekend, I was surprised when he gave black smoke as a clue for diesel. When I was his age, I probably would have given bus or truck as a clue.

The word diesel derives from the inventor Rudolph Diesel, who developed a heavy-duty engine in Germany in the late 1800s. Diesel fuel is any fuel used in diesel engines. The combustion of diesel fuel provides the power to move heavy-duty vehicles, such as buses and trucks. It also results in emissions of fine particles, often in the form of black smoke, along with a number of other chemical compounds.

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the emissions from diesel combustion to be carcinogenic. Last month, the WHO released data showing that more than 7 million deaths are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. The black smoke from diesel engines is a part of outdoor air pollution contributed by buses and trucks, as my son would tell me after we finished our game.

What he does not know as yet is that a study by a team of international scientists in 2013 noted that diesel smoke consists primarily of black carbon, which has a strong global warming impact on the climate; nearly 3,300 time more than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.

The one simple and clear message from the triangulation of current scientific evidence is that reducing diesel emissions provides health and climate benefits.

When Breathing Kills

Sameer Akbar's picture

 Curt Carnemark/World Bank

A good friend of mine recently returned from her mother’s funeral in Germany. She had died of lung cancer after spending the last eight years of her life in a slum in New Delhi where she taught orphaned children.

I can’t help but wonder if breathing the dirty indoor and outdoor pollution in New Delhi contributed to her cancer. My friend has the same question.

In new estimates released March 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2012, about 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution. Indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in households that cook over coal, wood and biomass stoves. Outdoor air pollution was linked to 3.7 million deaths from urban and rural sources worldwide. (As many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, mortality attributed to the two sources cannot simply be added together.)

South and East Asia had the largest number of deaths linked to indoor air pollution.

The WHO finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk. In particular, the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. In the case of both indoor and outdoor air pollution related deaths, 6 percent were attributed to cancer.

Thinking that my friend’s mother perished as result of pollution may not be so far-fetched.

One Bloc Moving Climate Progress Forward at Warsaw

Rachel Kyte's picture

 CCAC

In the climate negotiations under the United Nations framework, we are used to seeing geographical blocs and other blocs at loggerheads. The tension draws attention, but it isn’t the only story of blocs at the climate conference.

In Warsaw Thursday, members of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – 75 countries and international organizations working together – met and talked about their progress so far and work for the future to slow climate change.

What do these countries – among them, Nigeria, Sweden, the United States, Ghana, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Chile, Morocco, and Canada – have in common?

Answer: The firm belief that we can work together and substantially reduce black carbon, methane, and other short-lived climate pollutants.

Soot is Soot, No Matter the Circumstance!

Sameer Akbar's picture

 Curt Carnemark/World Bank

Last week, the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that snow in the Himalayas was melting because of religious activity on the Indian subcontinent. The report, based on research by American and Indian scientists, found that burning of wood for cremations and incense sticks for religious ceremonies and marriages leads to emissions of black carbon and other compounds. This, in turn, accelerates the melting of ice and snow-covered surfaces.

There is a growing body of research looking at how black carbon is accelerating snow and glacial melting. A scientific paper published in India early this year associated forest fires and other biomass burning to the accelerated melting of one of the Himalayan glaciers. Scientists have even implicated black carbon emission from increased industrial activity in Europe for the retreat of glaciers in the Alps in the mid-19th century.

On Black Smoke, Asthma and Those Rising Global Temperatures

Sameer Akbar's picture

 Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank

I am an asthmatic. Walking or biking behind a black-smoke-belching truck makes me choke, I mean really choke. I am sure it sounds familiar to other asthmatics or to those who have friends with respiratory problems.

The World Health Organization last month classified outdoor air pollution as a leading carcinogen. It particularly singled out particulate matter – the stuff that makes up the black smoke from those diesel trucks – as a carcinogen for humans.

On the heels of that news came word from China that record-air pollution levels nearly shut down one of northeastern China's largest cities, Harbin, forcing schools to suspend classes, snarling traffic and closing the city airport. An index measuring particulate matter reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of the city, home to some 11 million people. A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the WHO recommends a daily level of no more than 20.

Imagine the fate of my fellow sufferers, the asthmatics. Needless to say there was surge of hospital emergency room visits in Harbin on October 21.

Reducing Methane with Innovative Finance

Brice Jean Marie Quesnel's picture

 Curt Carnemark/World Bank

One key to addressing climate change is attracting private capital to finance low-carbon sustainable development.   For 2013, the World Bank estimates over US$1 trillion will flow to developing countries from private sources.  In order to increase capital flows to finance low-carbon investment, many forms of innovation are needed.  One source of innovation could come in the shape of results-based finance (RBF).   RBF, also known as pay-for-performance, was pioneered in the health sector and serves as the backbone of anticipated payments for protecting forests. It is increasingly being considered as a means for financing the adoption of low-carbon development pathways and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions abatement. RBF provides payments for success, and only upon the delivery of pre-defined, verified results.

To see how such a results-based approach to mobilizing private sector funding could work in methane reduction, the World Bank convened - at the request of the G8 - a dedicated study group which looked at the role that pay-for-performance mechanisms could play. The resulting report from the methane finance study group found that, when implemented, pay-for-performance provided by a credit-worthy third party can be a powerful catalyst for private investment. There is potentially much wider scope for the use of pay-for-performance mechanism in climate finance for its deployment to target other GHGs in addition to methane.

Can Transport Continue to Drive Development in the Face of Carbon and Resource Constraints?

Andreas Kopp's picture

 Shutterstock

Transport drives development: It leads agricultural producers out of subsistence by linking them to markets, enables regions and nations to become more competitive, and makes cities more productive.  But transport is also a big polluter, contributing 20 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions.  These emissions have grown by 1.7 percent annually since 2000, with 60 percent of the increase in non-OECD countries where economic growth has been accompanied by a surge in demand for individual motor vehicles.

Are attempts to change this trend bad for development? Recent historical experience tells us otherwise. Countries with the lowest emissions per passenger-km are the ‘development miracles’ of recent decades: Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all champions in transport fuel-efficiency.

So what would a low-emission future look like? Some see rapid improvements in engine technology as the path to de-carbonization. (Source: IEA) The IPCC, however, finds that technical breakthroughs such as mass affordability of fuel cell cars are unlikely to arrive soon. If so, emission reductions will have to be achieved by a modal change, emphasizing mass transit, railways, and inland water transport rather than individual motorization and aviation.

Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Unprecedented Highs: But Catastrophic Climate Change Can Still be Avoided

Alan Miller's picture

 Courtesy of World Meteorological Organization
Graph shows concentrations of atmospheric Co2 for the last 800,000 years, with measurements, starting from 1958, made at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. - Image courtesy of World Meteorological Organization

Scientists monitoring atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from a mountaintop in Hawaii recently reported that the presence of this greenhouse gas exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in at least three million years – a period when temperatures were much warmer than today. The significance of this seemingly dry statistical trend is stunning as reported in the New York Times:

From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.

In addition to the location in Hawaii, several other Global Atmosphere Watch stations from the Arctic to the Equator reported CO2 concentrations exceeding 400ppm.

Experts believe that in order to limit warming to 2°C – a goal based on expected impacts – concentrations should rise to no more than 450 ppm, a level we may reach in only about 25 years based on current trends.

Fighting Black Carbon as Oceans & Temperatures Rise

Rachel Kyte's picture

Scripps Institution of OceanographyLast week, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released data showing that CO2 atmospheric levels had briefly passed 400 parts per million (ppm) and were close to surpassing that level for sustained periods of time. This is bad news. At 450 ppm, scientists anticipate the world will be 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times, and world leaders have agreed that’s a point of dangerous consequences.

Along with this grim news came important new research findings from Professor V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution at the University of California, San Diego, and other researchers regarding short-lived climate pollutants – black carbon, methane tropospheric ozone and some hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). While we continue – and must continue – to hammer away at reducing CO2 emissions, their work supports the argument that also reducing these short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) can have an immediate effect on slowing warming and the resulting sea-level rise.

Fast forward to a cooler world

Richard Hosier's picture

At the C40 Summit in Sao Paolo last week, former President Clinton urged participating cities and the World Bank to make a dramatic reduction in methane and black carbon. He said it would help the earth buy some time on climate change. He has reasons to be worried: In Cancun last year, parties agreed to stabilize average global temperatures at a level not exceeding 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels. This looks difficult as 0.8 degree C warming has already taken place and GHG emissions continue to grow. 

Developed countries collectively reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a mere 6.1% from 1990-2008. Compared to the fast track for warming, humanity is on the slow train to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions.

President Clinton’s statement follows two recent reports that point to emerging scientific awareness that a climate change strategy focusing exclusively on carbon dioxide (CO2) is neither the quickest nor the most effective way to achieve long-term climate stabilization. These reports focus on non-CO2 emissions that stay in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time than CO2. As a result, reducing emissions of these non-CO2 gases will result in a slowing of temperature rise over the first half of the 21st century, buying time both to adapt and to transition away from carbon. 

The first report, produced by UNEP and WMO, assesses black carbon and tropospheric ozone. Black carbon—basically soot—is produced by incomplete combustion of carbon fuels, particularly diesel, wood, and coal. It is a dark suspended particle or aerosol, technically not a GHG. It is frequently emitted together with light-colored aerosols (sulfates and organic carbon) which cool the climate. The latest research indicates that, on balance, the warming effect of black carbon overpowers the cooling effect of its companions. It stays in the atmosphere for only a few weeks before falling to earth. Its warming contribution comes from its black color, making it absorb heat while in the air. If it falls onto mountain or polar snow, it accelerates glacial melt.