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April 14, 2008

Getting dirty with black carbon

Posted: 02:26 PM ET

Climate change discussions often focus on carbon dioxide, but another major culprit gets unleashed every time a truck drives on diesel fuel.

Black carbon, a principle component of soot, contributes more to climate change than previously thought, new research shows. In fact, black carbon could have as much as 60 percent of the current global warming effect of carbon dioxide, scientists reported in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Diesel combustion in trucks, buses and cars emit a lot of black carbon. The particulate air pollution also commonly comes from burning firewood, indoor cooking, and biomass burning.

Using data from satellites, aircraft and surface instruments, the scientists found that the warming effect of black carbon amounts to 0.9 watts per meter squared. That’s at least two times greater than estimates put forth by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the researchers said.

Besides making things look dirty, black carbon particles contribute to the retreat of glaciers and pose a public health risk, said V. Ramanathan, co-author of the study and atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

A major difference between black carbon and carbon dioxide is in their respective life spans, Ramanathan said. Carbon dioxide molecules can stay in the atmosphere for more than 100 years after being released, whereas black carbon only stays up there for about 10 days.

Black carbon pollution is a problem worldwide, the scientists said. China and India are responsible for between 25 and 35 percent of black carbon in the global atmosphere, mostly from burning wood and cow dung for cooking and using coal for heating. Countries that extensively use diesel fuel for transportation are also responsible for a lot of black carbon pollution.

While policy action should be taken to reduce black carbon emissions, it would be a “catastrophic mistake” to think that’s enough, without also addressing the problem of carbon dioxide emissions, Ramanathan said. "We have to do both," he said.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

Filed under: climate change

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Conor Cudahy   April 14th, 2008 4:12 pm ET

I think this is a disgrace to all humanity????? I have no idea what that means it just sounded cool.

dan   April 14th, 2008 6:07 pm ET

howcome the US is not listed with one of these countries?? I bet the states tops 25 and 35 % of black carbon in the global atmosphere for sure!

Karsen   April 14th, 2008 7:41 pm ET

Yeah, we should do a lot more like hydrogen powered cars and electric hybrids

Phil   April 14th, 2008 9:00 pm ET

"Black carbon"? Does the writer really mean "carbon black" or are really we talking about something else. In a SciTechBlog accuracy should matter. New cutesy names or dumbed down names don't help the communications. If its not carbon black, known for ages, then should clearly state that.

matt   April 14th, 2008 10:10 pm ET

huh. amazing. I think the irony here is that although black carbon seems to be another sinister environmental bad-guy, no matter how sooty something is a decent thunderstorm will wash it off. heavier than air as well, significantly, I'm pretty sure. oh well, let's all hope everyone on the planet doesn't switch from their ultra-economic sub-compacts to those evil, soot-belching RoadKIngs!

Franko   April 15th, 2008 3:10 am ET

Black carbon is therefore contributing to the heat island effect around cities, while blocking out the Sun. Is Global Dimming mainly caused by black carbon ?

Might be a way to melt glaciers in the coming Ice Age ?

Dr John   April 15th, 2008 7:51 am ET

The article neglects to mention that gasoline combustion releases more carbon dioxide than equivalent diesel combustion. So if we burn gasoline and release the far more persistent carbon dioxide we're better off? I think not.

Mike   April 15th, 2008 9:29 am ET

So energy and food prices are through the roof. Great time to start taxing and fining people for using energy!
No one has offered any evidence that sways me one way or the other. Has there even been a correlation made between solar output and global temps?
One thing I do know, is that if we use government to regulate energy use, it will have a nasty effect on the economy and individual freedom.

peter   April 15th, 2008 10:12 am ET

Is "black carbon" the same as "carbon black"? If so, it should be referred to as such since carbon black is a more common term.

george   April 15th, 2008 10:36 am ET

Just another global warming scare article. The trend the past decade has been towards global cooling. The period of the annual average temperature increase, prior to the past decade, has a direct correlation to solar activity, whereas there is no correlation between emissions and warming. Do unbiased research before jumping on your soapbox.

Patrick   April 15th, 2008 10:48 am ET

Comments like the last one are pretty typical of how this information will be spun to people who don't or can't know any better.

To put it in less scientific terms, BLACK STUFF WARMER THAN WHITE STUFF AND THAT NO GOOD.

therealist   April 15th, 2008 11:04 am ET

Everything the UN sponsers turns out to be corrupt. Follow the money!!

Dan (TX)   April 15th, 2008 1:49 pm ET

Gee, I didn't know that carbon came in any color than BLACK. Thanks for the breaking update!

What do you think the odds are of getting China & India to stop burning coal and cow dung? Do you really think that modern society can do without the diesel truck? Only if we want to live in the Dark Ages and a fuedal system.

As a physicist, this is just another Chicken Little "The Sky is Falling" hype. Next topic....

Mark   April 15th, 2008 2:23 pm ET

On the note of carbon dioxide, how many forget the cycle of life? Where carbon dioxide is bad for life that requires oxygen to breathe, other life plant life. When there is an abondance of carbon dioxide plant life thrives allow more plants to grow and prosper. In turn the the plants breathe out so to speak the toxic gas of oxygen which is bad for them by making the temperature colder and so on. It is a matter of perspective whether global warming is good or bad.

All said, we all still need to conserve for a better and more prosperous tomorrow!

Brian McCue   April 15th, 2008 3:03 pm ET

Gee whiz, I guess all those forest fires over the past 100+ million years didn't release any carbon either...

From what I've read, it looks like the world is indeed COOLING and not warming like Franko said.

Hydrogen from Water is the key!   April 15th, 2008 4:47 pm ET

Using Hydrogen derived from water is the CLEANEST alternative fuel handsdown!!

The oil companies are fighting it tooth and nail.

Tom   April 15th, 2008 5:14 pm ET

Wow. What a concept. Everything mankind does has a consequence. Are scientists just now figuring this out for the very first time?

This is beginning to sound a lot like the periodic news releases about this or that food that's either good for you or will take 10 years off your life, depending on which 'authority' is in vogue at the moment.

And the answer is....what? Take dung and coal away from hundreds of millions of people who depend on it?

Human existence has consequences. Get used to it.

RS   April 15th, 2008 6:38 pm ET

Black carbon (BC) *heats* the atmosphere, i.e. global warming – global dimming is *cooling* of the atmosphere. Sulfate and nitrate aerosols (sourced to coal power plants and other combustion sources) are responsible for global dimming.

Much of the BC (~50%) in Africa, China and India really comes from residential coal and biofuel use, which are prevalent throughout these regions (and presumably also in rural US) – not restricted to cities.

Heat islands are caused due to lots of factors, including changes in land use – replacing vegetation by concrete buildings, for instance. See here:

Daniel M   April 15th, 2008 7:14 pm ET

"Black carbon, a principle component of soot,"

Oops, I think you mean "principal".

Thanks for the interesting articles...keep it up!

Randy   April 15th, 2008 8:22 pm ET

New emissions rules took effect in 2007 that effectively eliminated "black carbon" emissions from on highway diesel engines. Off-highway emissions rules are being phased in soon. Similar rules exist in Europe.

Rachel   April 15th, 2008 10:40 pm ET

This to me sounds like a bunch of nonsense. I personally this is a new way to bring our attention to the "global warming" that some politions and a part of the public believe in. In my oppinion I believe that carbon dioxide is a problem for our enviroment, but i and i do believe that our atmosphere is detirerating, but I do not believe that the climat change of the earth is because of all that. I believe that climat pattern is what is causeing the warming of our earth. So, in my oppinion, i think that we need to replace our gas and diesle with other fule to run our cars, trucks, semi's, and ect.. with. Why did this information have to be presented to the public now? We havent even figured out how to replace gas with other fuels let alone mass amounts of a fuel that will replace the diesle fuel in our semi's.

Tim   April 16th, 2008 3:26 am ET

Hydrogen powered cars – unproven technology, very expensive and requires a vast amount of energy needed to produce it.

Electric cars – If everyone had an electric car the number of powerplants needed to produce the extra electrical capacity needed to keep them running would more than likely offset any environmental benefit. Plus there are all the old lead batteries to consider as the cars get older and battery life decreases over time.

Biodiesel – Only encourages people to clear more places like the Amazon rain forest to produce more crops to make the biofuel. More clearing = more green house gasses released and less living things to soak up the carbon.

New Technology will NOT be our saviour. We need to rethink the vary nature of HOW we live and HOW we design our built environment. We need to live closer to work, stores, schools, walk more, drive far less, create quality public domain and develop efficient, clean and safe MASS TRANSPORTATION FOR ALL.

Franko   April 16th, 2008 4:18 am ET

Couple of hours ago I came across
2008 International Conference on Climate Change

Especially important is Ferenc Miskolczi and Miklos Zagoni
Greenhouse effect is self – limiting
One effect is negated by another, and only little change.

All the climate models use wrong assumptions ?

James Gormley / LithChem   April 16th, 2008 9:39 am ET

Carbon Black is a sub-group of the carbon family with graphites being the root.
"Black Carbon" is an misnomer. All carbons are black. All oxygen consumers like carbon dioxide consumers (plants) are carbon based.

Carbon black started in paints in the caves of our ancestors. The largest consumer of carbon black is the tire industry. Carbons give alot of positive qualities to tires. Most carbons are conductive to a degree. They are used in all batteries cathodes and anodes. They are the major component of EDLC's (Ultracapacitors).

Carbons can be harvested from exhaust.

Joe Redding, CA   April 16th, 2008 12:23 pm ET

I just saw a show where they found a mamoth frozen in the artic, the green grass under I was still green. That means the mamoth and grass froze in one day. It has been waiting to be unfrozen since. So the globe is warming untill we are back to the day before the mamoth froze. Is that a bad thing.Global warming seems to be a very natural thing. So when they make cooking food on an open fire with wood ilegal you will know that corperate ownes the governments, and you will have to purchase the gas they drilled a mile deep hole in the ground for and packaged it taxed it. Enviromentalists inevertainly work for people way smarter than they think they are.

C, NC   April 16th, 2008 12:59 pm ET

"From what I’ve read, it looks like the world is indeed COOLING and not warming like Franko said."

– And I suppose Global Cooling is to blame for the melting polar ice caps?

Axel   April 16th, 2008 12:59 pm ET

"Electric cars – If everyone had an electric car the number of powerplants needed to produce the extra electrical capacity needed to keep them running would more than likely offset any environmental benefit. "

Not true, its far easier to develop 20 or 30 clean power stations such as Nuclear and clean coal plants than it is to clean up the waste from millions of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles.

Ed   April 16th, 2008 1:09 pm ET

Only 10 days? And causes possibly up to 60% of the warming effect? Wow... if that's true, it could mean there's a way for us to rapidly recover from global warming by cutting black carbon (soot) emmissions! That's very exciting! Now, I know soot can be captured by filters – thanks to High School science class. So if we could outfit diesel vehicles, wood & biomass burning machines, and smokestacks that release black carbon with filters, we might be able to dramatically and quickly effect a reduction in the greenhouse effect of the carbonated atmosphere. And after all, filters can't hurt in any case – I say this needs to happen sooner rather than later!

charles   April 17th, 2008 7:10 pm ET

all carbon is not black. diamonds, for example. that's all carbon (except for the small percentage of impurities that give them their various colors).

additionally, all of the energy we use has a cost. hydrogen fuel cells require exotic materials in order to store the hydrogen; does everyone think we simply pressurize some hydrogen gas and put it into cars? that would never be safe as a storage or delivery method. In my opinion, the cleanest source of energy is solar power - that uses energy that comes from the sun, not taking any energy from the Earth.

Franko   April 17th, 2008 9:38 pm ET

"And I suppose Global Cooling is to blame for the melting polar ice caps?"

Heat budget gets streched from poles to trophics, oscillates, etc.
We will be needing to feed the world from high latitude regions.
More Black Carbon please.

Ken   April 22nd, 2008 6:32 pm ET

What this article is not saying is that the US IS doing something about the carbon "soot" that it is called and have been for some time. Most recent was in 2007 when one they reduced the sulfer content in diesel fuel and are going to all but eliminate it in 2010. Two ALL new diesel engines have "deisel particulate filters" basicly a ceramic air filter and also after that a catalitic converter just like a car to remove ALL soot from going out the exhaust. Diesel engine oil also changed formulas for the new engines to be cleaner. For years and years fuel injection presures have increased and increased from about 500 psi to over 35000 psi for better atomization and burning of the diesel fuel. California police carry "smog cards" that they can look at a trucks exhaust and pull it over if it is polluting and have been doing this for years. I work at Peterbilt dealership. I see the canges to these engines every day. The EPA is getting stricter and stricter on them. The problem has been known and been being dealt with for a very long time.

Rhenoism   April 23rd, 2008 2:41 am ET

Hydrogen fuel is a scam, as is biodiesel and ethanol. Best start raising horses, because we're going to need them in the coming era of declining energy.

Franko   April 23rd, 2008 6:08 am ET

Black carbon changes albedo, not acting as a greenhouse gas.
Earth is in Greenhouse saturation effect, the CO2 effect is small,
But the Black Carbon is a real warmer.

Tony   April 25th, 2008 8:56 am ET

Nuclear Power...'nuff said. A lot of power, little atmospheric pollution.

Btw, the new designs for nuclear reactors are completely safe. Not only have core reactors themselves gotten safer, but the plants are designed so that they will implode and contain radioactive contamination, not explode and spread radioactivity. Admitted problems...what do you do with the depleted end product? While the solutions right now aren't great, they are good enough til a more permanent one can be found. So stop being afraid of a vastly beneficial technology and start supporting nuclear power.

Robert Falls   April 28th, 2008 1:09 pm ET

Global warming is a policitical name to gets attention. Climate change is fact. Greenland was green long ago and it was not by man doing and will be again. The only constant in this world is change. Love it or give up and die.

Stone   April 28th, 2008 8:19 pm ET

There's one answer, reduce the population...

Franko   April 29th, 2008 6:33 am ET

If we could engineer Greenland to become green again, and rise from the sea after the glaciers melted, we would be a step closer to the Garden of Eden.

Use water bombers to drop all kinds of black matarial on top of the glaciers.

Use nuclear weapons to open the Isthmus of Panama. (Ice ages are postulated to have started when North and South America joined.)

nita   October 6th, 2009 2:55 am ET

did anyone know how to clean the carbon black contamination?pls urgent reply..

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In home Personal training Long Island   December 6th, 2013 11:54 am ET

"Black carbon could have as much as 60 percent of the current global warming effect of carbon dioxide." That's Nuts. I'm concerned
about our health more then anything. What does this do to us?

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