Black carbon

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Bioenergy > Development > Household energy use/Indoor air pollution > Black carbon

Black carbon is the small particulate or soot pollution that is emitted when burning biomass, coal or diesel.

(Flickr Creative Commons image by Craig Nagy).
  • Black carbon affects individuals on a local level because it contributes to respiratory problems; this is of most concern in locations where people cook on open fire stoves.
  • Black carbon is also a significant factor related to global warming.



Climate change

Black carbon may account for about 25% of total human contributions to global warming. Much of the technology for reducing black carbon already exists and is easier to implement than CO2 reductions. Immediate reductions in black carbon could buy us some time to work out the more complicated CO2 reductions. Additionally, because carbon black has such a short lifespan reductions would have an immediate effect.

  • Dark clouds (such as the so-called "Asian Brown Cloud") caused by black carbon absorbs energy from the sun that would normally be reflected by light-colored clouds.
  • When black carbon settles on glaciers or sea ice, it darkens the normally reflective surface and speeds melting. This is particularly important for the glaciers of the Himalayas, due to their proximity to areas with intensive burning of biomass in South Asia.

Water Security

Large atmospheric brown clouds (ABC's) over the ocean reduce the amount of solar radiation that hits the water surface. This results in less evaporation which changes regional rain patterns.[1] "ABC-induced dimming is considered as the major causal factor for the rainfall decrease in India and for the north to south shift of the summer monsoon in Eastern China. However, many uncertainties in modeling regional climate remain."[2]

Health effects

Many households in developing countries burn biomass such as wood or dung for cooking. This can be very harmful to the health of these families, especially the women and young girls who do most of the cooking. "Aerosols [or particles] are inhaled and ingested in the lungs and cause acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer."[3]


Although black carbon settles out of the air quickly (days to several weeks) it is not a local or regional problem. The air from China takes only 3-5 days to travel to the United States, bringing with it large amounts of this and other air pollutants.

  • Diesel vehicles
    • The United States is the largest per capita emitter of black carbon, due to the number of diesel vehicles in use.
  • Biomass cookstoves
    • Traditional cooking using biomass is a major contributor of black carbon in Africa and Asia. There is a great deal of interest in increased efficiency stoves or alternative fuels for stoves. Changes in cooking methods in developing countries will have multiple advantages such as reducing pollutants that effect both health and climate change, reducing the amount of wood collected from nearby forested areas and reducing the many hours of labor spent collecting wood. (For more information on this issue see the household energy use page.)


  • UNECE Black Carbon Group Holds First Meeting, 28 June 2010 by "The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Black Carbon under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was held in Brussels, Belgium, on 17-18 June 2010."
    • "During the meeting, national experts and policymakers from Europe, North and South America and Asia reviewed the current state of black carbon research, discussed knowledge gaps, and explored future strategies for reducing the pollutant’s emissions."
    • "By the end of 2010, the Group, chaired by Norway and the US, is expected to provide options for potential revisions to the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol, enabling parties to the Convention to mitigate black carbon as part of a broader particulate matter strategy for health purposes and to achieve climate co-benefits."[5]
  • Cookstoves: The Secret Weapon Against Poverty and Climate Change, 4 May 2010 by Clair Marrey at HEDON Household Energy Network: "Excerpts from the Ashden Report:'Our calculations suggest that a global programme to manufacture the half-billion improved stoves needed to convert the world’s poor to safer cooking could save hundreds of thousands of young lives a year - and at the same time cut global greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of up to one billion tonnes of CO2 a year.'"
    • "Despite their growing popularity, the acceptance of improved stoves can be a problem. One study in Mexico of early Patsari stoves found that 50% of women abandoned them in favour of their old, more dangerous stoves. GIRA worked closely with users to improve the design, and 70% of families now use their Patsari stove on a regular basis. This highlights the importance of looking at both the technology and building a relationship with the users."
    • "Although many women dislike the smoke, for some it has a value. For instance, keeping away malaria-carrying mosquitoes and killing bugs that lurk in their thatched roofs."[6]
  • 'Black Carbon' Crackdown Offers Fast-Action Solution to Slow Warming, 17 March 2010 blog post by Stacy Feldman: "Lawmakers, scientists and advocates in the U.S. intensified calls Tuesday to immediately cut emissions from climate-warming soot — also known as black carbon — as deadlock continues in Congress over far more complicated regulation of carbon dioxide."
    • "Black carbon causes up to 600 times the warming of CO2 and lasts just a few weeks in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 lingers for a century or more. Because of black carbon's short lifespan, the impact of efforts to knock out the potent, heat-absorbing particle would be near immediate."
    • "The U.S. contributes 5.5 percent to that global total, estimates say, mainly from diesel engines. Advocates argue the nation could easily shrink that number down to almost nothing, starting now. The filters to trap up to 90 percent of diesel pollution, for instance, are ready to go."[7]
  • Black Carbon a Significant Factor in Melting of Himalayan Glaciers, 4 February 2010 by Science Daily: "[A]irborne black carbon aerosols, or soot, from India is a major contributor to the decline in snow and ice cover on the glaciers."
    • "'Our simulations showed greenhouse gases alone are not nearly enough to be responsible for the snow melt,' says Menon, a physicist and staff scientist in Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division. 'Most of the change in snow and ice cover -- about 90 percent -- is from aerosols. Black carbon alone contributes at least 30 percent of this sum.'"
    • "'Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, but black carbon doesn't stay in the atmosphere for more than a few weeks, so the effects of controlling black carbon are much faster,' Menon says. 'If you control black carbon now, you're going to see an immediate effect.'"[8]



  • The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air
    • "The Partnership focuses on four priority areas which have proved to be essential elements for sustainable household energy and health programs in developing countries: (i) Meeting Social/Behavioral Needs; (ii) Developing Local Markets; (iii)Improving Technology Design and Performance; and (iv) Monitoring Impacts of Interventions."[9]

Note: Much of the information on this page came from notes taken at a lecture called U.S.-China Cooperation: The Co-benefits of Reducing Black Carbon with speakers Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan a professor at UCSD, John Guy from the EPA and Dennise Clare from IGSD.

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