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More on the new US/UNEP Initiative to Cut Short-Term Climate Pollutants: a Positive Step for Human Health and the Environment

Rich Kassel

Posted February 16, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming, The Media and the Environment

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Just this morning, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled a new international program to cut black carbon, methane, hydroflourocarbons and other short-lived pollutants that add to global warming.  (Teaser alert:  a historical note about Secretary Clinton's longstanding leadership on diesel issues is at the bottom).

The new program will be a joint effort of the governments of the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden and the United Nations Environment Program, and will be managed from UNEP headquarters in Nairobi.

This new program will focus on the types of global warming pollution that stay in the atmosphere for weeks or months, and will complement longer-term strategies that focus on long-lasting pollutants like carbon dioxide.   Today’s New York Times article noted that 30-40 percent of all global warming impacts are attributable to these short-lived pollutants.

As I wrote in NRDC’s official statement on the announcement, “This is a historic and overdue step that will do a world of good. Cutting black carbon from dirty diesel engines is a particularly vital step.  Going forward, it’s important for the United States to follow through with ensuring the phase-out of its own emissions, while working with other countries to help them with their efforts.”

This program really has the potential to be a win-win for health and the environment.  

To understand why, let’s use black carbon and diesel pollution as an example.

When black carbon particles in the atmosphere drop onto snow or ice, they darken the surface, accelerating melting.  We’re seeing this in the Arctic, in the Himalayas, and other mountain ranges around the world.

Roughly one-quarter of the world’s black carbon pollution comes from dirty diesel engines, which emit high levels of soot pollution that contains a black carbon core.

This black carbon only lasts in the atmosphere for weeks.  So, just as their impacts are felt almost immediately (in climate terms), so are the benefits of cutting those emissions.  Turn off the spigot of black carbon, and both health and climate benefits are felt just as quickly.

This is a health issue, as well as a climate issue.

As regular readers of my posts know, diesel soot also triggers asthma attacks, bronchitis, cancer, emphysema, heart attacks, and thousands and thousands of premature deaths every year.  In fact, just in the U.S., diesel soot from all sources can be linked to almost 40,000 premature deaths.

What’s interesting is that this is a solvable problem - combining ultra-low sulfur fuel and particulate soot filters eliminates more than 90-95% of the diesel soot and black carbon. 

This has been the approach in the U.S. for the past five years, and we are now working with UNEP and others to adapt this approach to developing countries around the world.

Just last month, an important study was released that quantified the benefits of reducing the full range of short-lived pollutants.  Pollution reductions from this approach would prevent 700,000 to 4.7 million premature deaths each year, increase crop yields, and greatly reduce the risk of extreme climate disruption that lies beyond global warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

Both my colleague Dan Lashof and I wrote about this study in detail, summarizing these important findings and placing the issue in the context of our overall work to reduce black carbon pollution.

Dan’s post on the study is here, and my post on how we are working with UNEP to address black carbon emissions from dirty diesel engines is here.

Take a look.

The bottom line:  Strategies to reduce black carbon, methane, hydroflourocarbons and other short-lived pollutants will improve human health and are an important complement to longer-term strategies for pollutants like carbon dioxide.

It’s a win-win-win – for health, for the environment, and for buying time for our longer-term climate strategies.

(By the way, a historical and personal footnote:  Secretary Clinton has been a leader on diesel issues for many years.  When she was a U.S. Senator from New York, she and her staff were close allies of NRDC's Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign.  She sponsored legislation to create funding for diesel retrofits and to prioritize the use of clean construction equipment on transportation infrastructure projects, and she was a vocal and visible leader on diesel issues in New York.  In fact, on our refrigerator at home, we still have a picture of then-Senator Clinton with our then-very-young kids at a diesel press conference).

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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