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NASA GISS Identifies 14 Air Pollution Control Measures to Slow Global Warming, Improve Health and Increase Crop Yields

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Fourteen air pollution control measures, if implemented today, could not only slow the pace of global warming, according to an intensive study by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), but also improve health and boost agricultural productivity. All regions of the world would benefit as a result, NASA found, but the biggest health and agricultural gains would be realized in Asia and the Middle East as a result of greenhouse (GHG) emissions reductions.

The GHG pollution measures center on methods of reducing emissions of methane (CH4) and black carbon particulates (soot). While increasing volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into our atmosphere is the primary agent of the greenhouse effect and the long-term global warming trend, the NASA GISS research team found that reducing emissions of methane and black carbon “are complementary actions that would have a more immediate impact because these two pollutants circulate out of the atmosphere more quickly,” according to a project summary on NASA GISS’ website that comes with several, unique interactive explanatory features.

“Protecting public health and food supplies may take precedence over avoiding climate change in most countries, but knowing that these measures also mitigate climate change may help motivate policies to put them into practice,” NASA GISS research team leader Drew Shindell stated.

“The scientific case for fast action on these so-called ‘short-lived climate forcers’ has been steadily built over more than a decade, and this study provides further focused and compelling analysis of the likely benefits at the national and regional level,” added United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) executive director Achim Steiner.

NASA GISS’ Climate Triple Whammy: Measures to Reduce Methane and Black Carbon Emissions

Implementing the 14 air pollution control measures today could slow down global warming 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) by 2050, as well as increase crop yields by up to 135 million metric tons per season and prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year,” according to a summary of the research study.

“We’ve shown that implementing specific practical emissions reductions chosen to maximize climate benefits would also have important ‘win-win’ benefits for human health and agriculture,” Shindell commented.

In carrying out the study, which has been published in Science, Shindell and an international team evaluated some 400 control measures based on technologies evaluated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. The 14 chosen were deemed to have the greatest climatic benefits.

The NASA GISS research team has identified key strategies to implement the 14 air pollution control measures to reduce methane and black carbon emissions, which “would require that societies make multiple infrastructure upgrades” as both have multiple sources.

For methane, they entail capturing emissions from coal mines and natural gas facilities, as well as reducing leakage from long-distance pipelines, preventing emissions from city landfills, updating wastewater treatment plants, greater aeration of rice paddies and limiting emissions from manure on farms.

The strategies to reduce emissions of black carbon include installing filters in diesel vehicles, removing and keeping high-emission vehicles off the road, installing more efficient kilns for brick production, upgrading coke ovens whose products are used in the production of steel, and banning agricultural burning.

Methane, Black Carbon, Ozone: Effects on Global Warming, Health and Agriculture

Both methane and black carbon, in addition to intensifying global warming, cause or bring about other negative environmental effects. Both pollutants damage human health either directly or by leading to ozone formation.

Black carbon is produced as a result of burning fossil fuels and biomass, such as wood or dung. It worsens a number of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and absorbs radiation from the sun, causing Earth’s atmosphere to warm and rainfall patterns to shift, NASA GISS notes. By blackening snow and ice-covered areas of the globe, it also reduces the amount of sunlight being reflected back into the atmosphere.

The principal constituent of the natural gas we use to heat our homes and produce electricity, methane is 21x as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, though it dissipates much more quickly in the atmosphere. Methane emissions also lead to the production of ground level ozone, a key component of smog, and another greenhouse gas. Ozone also damages crops and human health, NASA GISS explains.

Interactive charts on NASA’s website shows how the 14 air pollution control measures would work to reduce methane and black carbon emissions and just how much implementing them could slow down global warming. Other interactive graphics show many deaths per 100,000 people per country could be avoided by implementing these measures, while a fourth shows the gains in crop yields that could be realized.

* Image courtesy NASA GISS

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