Grim Irony: Curbing Air Pollution Is Warming the Earth Faster

Grim Irony: Curbing Air Pollution Is Warming the Earth Faster  Futurism

Grim Irony: Curbing Air Pollution Is Warming the Earth Faster

Grim Irony: Curbing Air Pollution Is Warming the Earth Faster

“It could be a full degree of cooling being masked.”

Cool Factor

Have industrial emissions been counteracting the worst effects of global warming? Scientists are starting to think so.

Burning coal, oil, and gas warms our planet by dispersing greenhouse gases, like CO2, into the atmosphere. And before the introduction of more stringent environmental regulations, these fuel sources would often contain deadly pollutants like sulfur oxide that contribute to the deaths of millions of people globally.

World governments have rightly fought to curb pollutants. But as a growing body evidence is beginning to show, these airborne particles, or aerosols, have likely mitigated rising temperatures by reflecting sunlight and boosting the reflectivity of clouds — and as a result, concealed just how bad global warming actually is.

The extent of the cooling they’ve caused is more contentious. Nonetheless, it’s a grim irony that exemplifies the complexities of understanding — nevermind protecting — our climate.

“We’re starting from an area of deep, deep uncertainty,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, told The Washington Post. “It could be a full degree of cooling being masked.”

Abandon Ship

One of the biggest drop-offs in pollutants may come from the shipping industry, whose regulatory body in 2020 started limiting the use of the dirty, sulfur-spewing fuels its massive vessels once relied on, in favor of cleaner alternatives.

But with the resulting decrease in aerosols, recent research has shown that these cuts in shipping pollution has directly led to more solar radiation being trapped in our atmosphere, which could explain why 2023 was the hottest year on record by a margin that alarmed even scientists.

That doesn’t augur well for the future: the authors of the research suggested that as we curb these deadly pollutants, we could experience double the rate of global warming compared to the average since 1880.

As WaPo notes, however, many experts think the warming will be less pronounced, contributing somewhere between 0.05 degrees and 0.1  degrees Celsius of an uptick — which, of course, is still significantly worrying.

Clear the Air

There is, perhaps, a silver lining. The same cooling principle of these pollutants could be wielded in an experimental technique called marine cloud brightening, which would involve deliberately injecting safe aerosols into the atmosphere to cause clouds to reflect more sunlight and to increase cloud cover.

This is unproven and controversial, though, and the researchers behind the shipping study have suggested that their findings are an example of the downsides of pursuing that technique: the minute we stop pumping aerosols into the atmosphere, global temperatures will soar again, perhaps even more drastically than before.

At any rate, clarifying these gray areas will be paramount for climate scientists. The picture is more complicated than we once thought, and determining how much aerosols figure into it will be essential if humanity is to keep global warming short of even more disastrous levels.

“It’s not just a story of greenhouse gas emissions,” Robert Wood, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, told WaPo. “Whether you clean up rapidly, or whether you just fumble along with the same aerosol emissions, could be the difference of whether you cross the 2-degree Celsius threshold or not.”

More on climate change: More Than 1,300 Muslim Pilgrims Die From Extreme Heat

Share This Article

SDGs, Targets, and Indicators

SDGs Targets Indicators
SDG 13: Climate Action Target 13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 13.3: Improve education, awareness-raising, and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 13.a: Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 13.b: Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth, and local and marginalized communities Indicator not mentioned in the article
SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being Target 3.9: By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination Indicator not mentioned in the article
SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy Target 7.2: By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 7.3: Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency Indicator not mentioned in the article
Target 7.a: By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology Indicator not mentioned in the article

No specific targets or indicators mentioned in the article can be directly linked to the SDGs discussed.