Rio+20 earth summit should look to reduce black carbon through carbon trading

Delegates at the Rio+20 earth summit must look beyond CO2 to black carbon. Reducing black carbon (soot) is easier than reducing other kinds of greenhouse gas emissions. And a market-based international system to reduce carbon emissions is already in place.

Aaron Favila/AP
Protesters depict Mother Nature during a rally near Manila against the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development taking place in Rio De Janeiro June 20. Op-ed contributor Dennis Posadas says, 'Applying a cap-and-trade system or a suitable equivalent, such as voluntary market emissions trading, to black carbon is a logical next step.'

As delegates in Rio de Janeiro meet today for the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio summit on sustainability, there is much to talk about. One of the main items to be discussed at the Rio+20 summit is the status of carbon emissions mitigation, particularly CO2. While initiatives have targeted CO2 emissions with some success, much remains to be done, and countries must now look at other forms of carbon emissions to break the deadlock.

One of those emissions is black carbon, commonly known as soot – a recognized public health hazard and contributor to global warming. Fortunately, reducing black carbon is much easier than reducing other kinds of emissions like CO2. And a market-based international system incentivizing reduction of carbon emissions is already in place.

Anyone who has been outside in a major city for a while, especially in Asia, will notice the amount of black carbon in the air. If you stay in the streets long enough, it gets in your eyes, your hair, and even your lungs. Needless to say, this is a recognized public health hazard. Although anti-smog laws in countries like the United States and Japan have helped to mitigate black carbon emissions to some extent, poor countries have had much difficulty doing the same, despite having laws to produce the same results.

But because scientists have discovered that black carbon is also a powerful climate change causing substance, there may be a way to use climate change funds to help pay to fix the problem. In this way, both the climate impact and the public health impact can be solved together.

As anybody who has touched a dark colored car on a hot summer’s day can attest, dark substances like black carbon do not reflect light and instead emit heat to their surroundings. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), cutting back on "short-lived" climate pollutants like black carbon may reduce global warming expected by 2050 by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius (32.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

The nice thing about addressing this problem is that the impact is immediate. Black carbon does not linger in the air for long; any improvement will be seen in a few weeks time. Curbing black carbon emissions will also help eliminate a major cause of Arctic ice melting. Black carbon, carried by winds, lessens ice reflectivity and increases melting, which affects the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight back to space.

Poverty and lax enforcement of laws have caused poorly designed cook stoves, badly maintained engines, and cultural practices such as clearing of dry brush by burning to exacerbate the problem in poorer countries. Since black carbon is a product of incomplete combustion, it is actually easy to fix. Sometimes, all that is needed to reduce or eliminate emissions is an engine tune-up. In other cases, fully dilapidated engines that are still running on the road need to be replaced or rebuilt, and inefficient cook stoves replaced.

But all these changes take money, and often individuals and governments have neither the resources nor incentives to make them. For example, a predominant means of transportation for a poor man in the Philippines, the jeepney (a converted American jeep that can carry roughly 20 passengers), is often built using surplus and rebuilt parts. Jeepney operators have very little cost incentive to use a modern, clean-burning engine, as the profit margin for their business is extremely low. And anti-smog laws are often undermined by poor enforcement.

How can we pay for black carbon reduction programs in places that do not have the money to pay for them? Countries need to use the same market techniques that have financed traditional greenhouse gas reduction and clean energy projects like solar farms and wind farms. Carbon trading, also known as cap and trade in the US, provides a strong financial incentive for reducing emissions.

The concept of carbon trading emerged from the Kyoto Protocol as a way for countries to trade their greenhouse gas emission rights. With a set number of emission rights, a country that had a hard time reducing its emissions could essentially pay another country to reduce its emissions by the appropriate amount. The argument was that it would be cheaper for a less developed country to reduce emissions than it would be for a developed country, but the goal of emission reduction would still be achieved.

There are two ways a carbon trading system can work. One is where countries or companies are given an emission cap, or certain number of emission permits, and can then buy and sell these carbon credits privately or on the international market through several exchanges. The second carbon trading system that is gaining in popularity is when companies and countries trade carbon credits by voluntary means, with no cap in place.

With emissions trading, companies – and countries – have a profit incentive to reduce emissions (sale of carbon credits), and the markets that develop around the trade of these credits are valued in the tens of billions of dollars. While, carbon-trading systems face criticism from opponents on both the environmental and business sides, recent history also shows the systems work. In the US, a cap-and-trade system was included in the 1990 Clean Air Act, and many see it as having been important in reducing sulfur-related acid rain.

Applying a cap-and-trade system or a suitable equivalent, such as voluntary market emissions trading, to black carbon is a logical next step. For this to happen, the infrastructure that has evolved for greenhouse gas mitigation simply needs to include black carbon in its scope.

One ton of black carbon emitted from a Thai tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) or a Philippine jeepney can be measured according to a mutually agreed technical standard, and then traded in the markets accordingly. This means that governments and social entrepreneurs can then figure out ways to finance the upgrade and repair of these polluting systems, using the market-assigned value of the black carbon reduction as financial payback for their efforts.

Take for example the inefficient cook stoves used in many countries. A social entrepreneur could shell out the money initially to replace the polluting cook stoves with more efficient burning ones, with the presumption that he can make a slight profit (or at least get his money back) from the estimated future market value of the black carbon reduction (sale of credits).

So a company like General Motors or IBM, seeking to reduce its carbon footprint, might end up buying emission credits in a carbon market, thus monetizing the efforts of some social entrepreneurs who risk their capital in financing carbon reduction projects.

If a black carbon reduction project cost the social entrepreneur $10 per carbon ton to pay for engine improvements, he can hope corporate buyers will pay $11 per ton in the carbon markets to allow him to make a $1 profit per ton of carbon that his project was able to reduce.

Key to this is an accurate and internationally verifiable measurement of the amount of black carbon reduced from doing each project as well as an assurance from several countries that the procedures would be insulated from graft and corruption to the highest degree possible. International cooperation between several countries, such as that fostered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the US State Department, is key.

World leaders meeting at the Rio+20 sustainability summit this week must consider ways to push governments to treat black carbon the same way that they treat greenhouse gas reduction. In that way, the world can work to solve both climate change and public health issues at the same time.

Dennis Posadas is an Asia-based clean energy consultant, author, and technology pundit. He is the author of “Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable” and “Rice & Chips: Technopreneurship and Innovation in Asia” published by Pearson Education Asia.

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