India's environmental trump card: how reducing black carbon through common but differentiated responsibilities can curb climate change.

Author:Nanda, Anjali D.
Position:Sustainable Development, Corporate Governance, and International Law

    Although black carbon, commonly known as soot, is a leading contributor to global warming, second only perhaps to carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]), (1) it has not received adequate attention on the international level. After the impasse at Copenhagen and very little progress at Cancun in reaching an agreement on the terms of a new treaty to address climate change, the international community is left wondering whether the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire at the end of 2012, will have a binding successor and, if so, what such an agreement will encompass) No matter what form the Kyoto Protocol's eventual successor takes, it is essential that black carbon's role in mitigating climate change be taken into account primarily because, due to the nature of the sources from which it is emitted and its short lifespan in the atmosphere, reducing black carbon emissions could be the "fastest method of slowing global warming" in the immediate future, (3)

    This comment discusses black carbon's environmental impact, reviews global approaches to addressing the problems associated with black carbon, and suggests a course of action for the international community to effectively reduce black carbon emissions. Section II presents a brief overview of black carbon's scientific composition, identifies the geographical hotspots producing black carbon, and examines solutions to mitigating black carbon emissions. Next, Section III focuses on international law relating to black carbon and how a two-fold approach involving treaties and customary international law should be utilized to set goals for reducing black carbon through international cooperation. Section IV discusses how curbing black carbon emissions through the shipping industry could alleviate warming of the Arctic and the Himalayan regions and the controversy surrounding the wanning of the Himalayan region is addressed. In Section V India's legal framework is examined and it is suggested that India's legal system could play an important role in reducing global black carbon pollution. Finally, the concluding section offers recommendations for the international community. Throughout the article, India's role in addressing the black carbon problem and its capacity to achieve environmental justice are highlighted.


    1. What is Black Carbon and Where Does it Come From?

      Black carbon is a form of particulate air pollution produced by incomplete combustion4 of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, gasoline), bio-fuel (e.g., wood or cow dung burned in stoves for cooking and heating); and open biomass burning (e.g., forest fires), as well as diesel exhaust. (5) It is both anthropogenic and natural in origin. (6) Unlike carbon dioxide, which is inert and can remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years, black carbon is a short-lived particulate, remaining in the atmosphere for approximately only one week after it is emitted. (7)

      Five hotspots of regional black carbon producers have been identified: 1) East Asia (eastern China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia); 2) the Indo-Gangetic Plains in South Asia (extending from Pakistan across India to Bangladesh and Myanmar); 3) Indonesia; 4) Southern Africa; and 5) the Amazon basin in South America. (8) Emissions are especially high in India and China where cooking and heating utilize wood, field residue, cow dung, and coal burning at low temperatures, none of which allows for complete combustion. (9) China and India's heightened black carbon output can be explained by the use of solid/biomass fuels in cooking and heating in 80 percent of Chinese and Indian households. (10)

    2. The Warming Effects of Black Carbon and its Impact on Human Health and Weather Patterns

      Black carbon warms the earth's atmosphere in a number of different ways.

      First, when black carbon is released into the atmosphere it combines with other aerosols, forming atmospheric brown clouds. (11) It simultaneously warms the planet by intercepting direct sunlight and absorbing solar radiation. (12) Atmospheric brown clouds in turn affect weather patterns by reducing rainfall and increasing the occurrence of droughts. (13)

      The brown clouds also intercept reflected sunlight by absorbing solar radiation reflected from the surface and clouds; this reduces solar radiation reflected to space by the earth-atmosphere system. (14) As a result, planetary albedo (earth's ability to reflect sunlight) decreases and solar radiation reaching the ground is reduced by five percent. (15)

      Furthermore, black carbon causes warming when deposits fall on snow and sea ice; this increases the absorption of solar radiation by ice and snow which has the effect of melting the ice. (16) When black carbon falls on snow it also darkens it: white snow reflects 80 percent of the sun's rays, (17) but with the presence of black carbon, darker snow absorbs the sunlight instead, which melts the ice. (18) Reduction in surface glacial ice, especially in the Antarctic and the Himalayas, has been found to contribute to rising sea levels and overall global warming. (19)

      Thus, black carbon in the atmosphere heats the air, altering atmospheric stability and vertical motions, and also affecting the large-scale circulation and hydrological cycle with significant regional climate effects, such as droughts in India and floods in China. (20) The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies' climate computer model and aerosol data specifically indicate that black carbon is responsible for localized climate problems in China resulting in increased droughts in the north and summer floods in the south. (21)

      Indoor air pollution is caused primarily by soot and dust particles released during the burning of traditional biomass fuels such as wood or dung. Soot has alarming impacts on human health; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that indoor air pollution is the eighth most important health risk factor responsible for 2.7 percent of disease worldwide. (22) The effects are especially acute in developing countries as, for example, indoor air pollution causes 3.5 percent of all diseases in India, (23) and 1.6 million deaths in Asia were attributable to indoor air smoke from solid fuel use and urban air pollution in 2000. (24) Air pollution's share of global disease may also have a quantifiable economic impact, as studies show that the detrimental health effects of small particulate matter in India and China could be as high as 3.6 and 2.2 percent of their gross domestic products, respectively. (25)

      Although health concerns such as lung cancer and cardiovascular ailments have long been associated with black carbon, (26) its negative impact on the environment has garnered increasing attention only recently. (27) As explained by Orjan Gustafsson and colleagues at Stockholm University, biomass combustion in India produced about two-thirds of the total aerosol pollution, a much larger proportion than previously thought. (28) According to their study, "biomass combustion (such as residential cooking and agricultural burning) and fossil fuel combustion should be targeted to mitigate climate effects and improve air quality." (29)

      In its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that a 2.4[degrees]C warming above preindustrial surface temperatures is inevitable; (30) this is referred to as the zone of "dangerous anthropogenic interference" (DAI). (31) More than 100 countries have generally agreed that the threshold for DAI is at a 2[degrees]C increase above preindustrial temperatures. (32) To illustrate the impact of black carbon on global warming, it is responsible for almost 50 percent of the 1.9[degrees]C increase in warming of the Arctic since 1890. (33) Second only to C[O.sub.2]--which is responsible for 40 percent of the planet's warming--studies show that black carbon generates 18 percent of the planet's warming, a figure that is three to four times higher than estimated in the IPCC's 2007 report. (34)

      Air pollution abatement policies aimed at protecting human health and the environment may inadvertently accelerate warming by decreasing sulphate and other aerosols. (35) The reason for this unexpected consequence is that these aerosols have a cooling impact on the climate, and thus, reduction of such pollutants in the interest of protecting human health can in fact negatively affect the environment. (36) However, after such aerosols are removed, reducing short-lived warming agents such as black carbon and methane can counteract the unintentional warming caused by efforts to improve human health, further highlighting the urgent need to decrease concentrations of black carbons

    3. The Most Direct Methods to Curb Black Carbon Emissions

      Due to its short life span and anthropogenic nature of the sources from which black carbon is polluted, researchers say that decreasing black carbon emissions would be inexpensive, direct, and the most efficient and immediate way to reduce warming. (38) While efforts remain primarily focused on cutting global C[O.sub.2] emissions, even after significant emissions reductions have been made, C[O.sub.2] will still linger in the atmosphere because of its extended life-span. (39) Moreover, as found by Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of climate science at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, reducing black carbon emissions by 50 percent could also have the effects of delaying the warming effects of C[O.sub.2] by one to two decades. (40)

      Because of the ease with which black carbon and ozone can be reduced compared with C[O.sub.2], Dr. Ramanathan and Dr. Jessica Wallack, Director of the Centre for Development Finance at the Institute for Financial Management and Research, in Chennai, India, view reducing black carbon as a "low-hanging fruit." (41) The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD) is demanding "fast-action mitigation...

To continue reading