Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Study raises hope of combating global warming by reducing soot

Black-carbon soot is the No. 2 global warming agent released into the atmosphere by human activities. A landmark study in California shows some success in controlling it.

By Staff writer / June 13, 2013

Between 1989 and 2008, clean-air rules in California virtually halved the concentrations of black-carbon soot in the state's skies, in effect reducing the state's carbon footprint by the equivalent of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 21 million tons a year, according to new analysis.

Skip to next paragraph

That would represent about 5 percent of the state's CO2 emissions in 2009, according to the report. Though the data have yet to be fed into global climate models to see if California's results can be replicated elsewhere, they bolster the hope that focusing on black-carbon soot could be an effective way to begin to address global warming.

During the past decade, atmospheric scientists have focused increasing attention on black-carbon soot, the tiny particles found in Diesel exhaust as well as the emissions from wood and dung fires. The soot, which absorbs sunlight and re-radiates it as heat, has edged out methane as the second most-abundant greenhouse-agent released into the atmosphere by human activities. But unlike carbon dioxide or methane, soot takes only days or weeks to settle out of the atmosphere, compared with decades to centuries for methane and CO2.

This has led some scientists to conclude that by focusing near-term emissions reductions on global soot, in addition to other shorter-lived warming agents such as methane and ozone, humanity could slow the expected rate of global warming during the next several decades.

Last year, for instance, a study by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York suggested that such controls could reduce warming expected by 2050 by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, or about 1 degree Fahrenheit. That is a significant amount, given the international interest in ensuring that global temperatures don't increase by more than 2 degrees C by 2100, compared with preindustrial levels.

The study released Thursday marks the first time researchers have been able to measure the climate-related effects of long-term reductions in black-carbon soot over a region, the research team says. Until now, scientists have had to rely on limited field studies and computer simulations to estimate such effects.

Estimates of how large an effect soot controls could have on global warming will have to wait until models chew over the new data. But the report's lead author is willing to hazard an educated guess.

"I'm speculating that it could cut down the rate of warming by 15 percent" over the near term, says Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. He worked with researchers from the University of California at San Diego and from national laboratories in California and Washington State.

Others are a bit more cautious, noting that the effects could vary widely, based on regional differences in atmospheric circulation patterns as well as population density and predominant sources of soot.

Still, the study represents a landmark in efforts to understand the impact of emission-control efforts, according to Yan Feng, a researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., who helped craft the proposal for the study three years ago but did not take part in the execution of the study.


  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!