Before he leaves office President Barack Obama should call for international negotiations on a global clean air act to save lives and reduce global warming, particularly in the Arctic. If he does not, his successor should make it a top priority.
The International Energy Agency, a highly respected keeper of records for global energy supply, demand and effects, recently joined the overdue call for a global effort to fight air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
Its proposal points to three strengths of such an effort. It will have a relatively rapid effect, will save millions of lives, and will reduce the threat of global warming at an affordable cost.
According to the World Health Organization, around 6.5 million people die each year as a result of air pollution. The annual number of deaths from air pollution is, it says, much greater than the number from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.
As the International Energy Agency notes, air pollution also brings major costs to the global economy and damage to the environment. The IEA says energy production and use is the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity.
Air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels includes sulphur dioxide and soot (black carbon or particulate matter) generated by burning coal, kerosene, bunker oil and biomass — in particular wood and grasses — and nitrogen oxides emitted by burning oil and gasoline. These pollutants combine in the atmosphere to create smog.
In addition to the deleterious effects of air pollution on human health, there is good evidence that it contributes to global warming. According to information published recently by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Black Carbon (BC) influences climate by: directly absorbing light; reducing the reflectivity (‘albedo’) of snow and ice; and interacting with clouds.”
The EPA reports that black carbon “has been linked to a range of climate impacts, including increased temperatures and accelerated ice and snow melt. Sensitive regions such as the Arctic and the Himalayas are particularly vulnerable to the warming and melting effects of BC.”
The EPA report concludes that in addition to the health benefits of reducing black carbon in the atmosphere, “reducing current emissions of BC may help slow the near-term rate of climate change, particularly in sensitive regions such as the Arctic.”
That, in turn, could greatly reduce the rate of ocean rise in the coming decades.
Agreeing with the conclusion reached by the International Energy Agency, the EPA notes that reducing air pollution can have relatively quick benefits. It says the “short atmospheric lifetime (days to weeks)” of black carbon “means that targeted strategies to reduce BC emissions can be expected to provide climate benefits within the next several decades.”
This contrasts strongly, and favorably, with the very longtime horizons required to obtain climate benefits from reducing CO2, though that, too, must be dealt with.
And the International Energy Agency points out that there will also be important benefits in reducing atmospheric carbon emissions if the world gets together on reducing air pollution, mainly by increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel energy usage.
It notes that, unlike the drive for reduced carbon emissions, the technology for greatly improving global air quality is well known and readily deployable.
The International Energy Agency also estimates that a modest increase in the global budget for energy will suffice to deliver the benefits of a global clean air regime.
The science and the economics of a global clean air effort make a compelling case for action now.