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New Hope on Global Warming

MANILA – In 1997, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Kyoto Protocol – an agreement among signatory states to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2012, however, the Clean Development Mechanism, a system of carbon credits in which each credit represents a country’s right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2), is set to expire. While policymakers struggle to extend it, carbon-finance specialists are seeking market-driven alternatives. Progress on the issue has stalled: at the last two UNFCCC conferences in Copenhagen and Cancún, members failed to arrive at an agreement on emission cuts.

Reduction, or mitigation, of CO2 emissions is not easy. It is also expensive. The typical measures – carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), energy conservation, and greater reliance on renewable energy sources like solar and wind – are all costly enterprises, often out of reach for poorer countries, where air pollution can be a serious problem.

But recent climate science may offer hope. Research indicates that black carbon (the soot from inefficient combustion in stoves, fires, engines, etc.) belongs to a class of substances that have an extremely high global warming potential. In particular, black carbon absorbs sunlight and radiates heat, thereby melting ice and snow.

Black carbon in the atmosphere also causes respiratory ailments, as Asian cities such as Shanghai, Bangkok, and Manila have shown. Fine soot particles can penetrate the upper defenses of the respiratory tract and settle deep in the lungs. Children, the elderly, and people with heart and lung diseases are at highest risk.