Black Carbon Pollution

Introduction to Black Carbon

Black Carbon, a short lived aerosol, is a uniquely potent environmental pollutant due to its high warming potential and dangerous respiratory impacts. Similarly to mercury, POPs and, microplastics, Black Carbon has adverse health impacts, although its short atmospheric and terrestrial lifespan offers unique benefits to mitigation. These characteristics of Black Carbon aerosols make the pollutant dangerous at both a global and local level, and have especially potent impacts in the Arctic region.

Black Carbon is formed from the incomplete combustion of natural materials, notably of fossil fuels. Lack of oxygen results in the formation of char, ash, and charcoal, which collectively make up Black Carbon. Primary sources of Black Carbon include transportation, agriculture, and industry- however, transportation is the main sector responsible for the majority of Black Carbon pollution. In the Arctic, Black Carbon pollution stems primarily from shipping vessels. Shipping sources of Black Carbon pollution will become a more prevalent problem for Arctic ecosystems, since 4.7% of world trade can be rerouted through these Arctic Trade routes.

Black Carbon in the Arctic

We can use the Arctic Amplification model to understand the environmental impacts of regional and global Black Carbon pollution in the Arctic. On a global level, the emission of Black Carbon aerosols contributes to increased global temperatures through the strengthening of the greenhouse effect. In the atmosphere, Black Carbon absorbs and re-emitts light energy as heat, which has an enormous effect on global temperature increases, and continually warms Arctic climates. In addition, Black carbon emitted from local sources in the Arctic contributes to the Arctic Amplification mechanism by remaining on ice sheets in the Arctic and absorbing light energy, warming the air above and the ice below. This warming effect further contributes to the Arctic Amplification method by melting the sea ice, so that there is less albedo available to reflect sunlight. As a result, more heat energy is absorbed into the darker oceans, creating a negative feedback loop of dramatically increasing Arctic temperatures.

Science Assessment: Arctic Black Carbon and Surface Temperatures | Global Environmental Science and Politics

Figure illustrating the impacts of Black Carbon on Arctic ice sheets, from International Arctic Systems for Observing the Arctic (IASOA)

Black Carbon’s Public Health Impacts

In addition, Black Carbon has adverse effects on local health, putting indigenous Arctic communities at risk. Black Carbon is  a particulate matter pollutant (PM 2.5), which is the sum of suspended organic and inorganic particles in air which are hazardous to human health. The impacts of Black Carbon aerosols include the worsening of cardiovascular and respiratory problems, increasing susceptibility to respiratory diseases, and significantly elevated mortality rates from respiratory issues. Smaller PM particles are more damaging than larger particles because they deposit in the lungs. Since Black Carbon is one of the smallest forms of PM, these particles tend to have the worst health impacts (Arctic Council 2020)

Figure showing how PM 2.5 pollutants enter the body, resulting in adverse health impacts, as described above. Since Black Carbon is a 2.5 PM pollutant, it has the worst impact out of other larger aerosols. Image from the Utah Department of Health.

Arctic Council Action Plan

Currently, the Arctic Council has a mechanism in place in order to address Black Carbon Pollution in the Arctic. This plan creates an iterative process, which includes the creation of detailed records of Black Carbon pollution, progress summaries from each state, and forms an expert group to ensure the continued progress of all states. This plan was designed in order to continue Black Carbon monitoring in the Arctic, and gradually reduce local emissions at a national level by creating a cooperative forum to share mitigation ideas, strategies, and resources. However, there are several limitations to this plan. First, the Arctic Council’s plan is non-binding, which has caused several major Black Carbon emitters to defer to inaction. In addition, Black Carbon monitoring is weak in the Arctic, with only four long term research stations and there are expansive regions of the Arctic where no data is collected at all. Therefore, the Arctic is in dire need of additional policy solutions to Black Carbon pollution.

Policy Recommendation #1: Changes to the IMO’s Polar Code

To address the limitations in enforcing Black Carbon mitigation in the Arctic, it is necessary to create a top-down mitigation mechanism to reduce levels of Black Carbon. The Systems approach is effective in reducing Black Carbon emissions from the transportation sector, and could be applied to Arctic Shipping. The systems approach has three main parts: adopting clean fuel standards, emissions standards for new vehicles, and programs to reduce emissions from existing vehicles. By adding clauses that mirror the system’s approach to the Polar Code, the shipping companies polluting the Arctic would be forced to internalize their externalities, resulting in significant social benefits. This is also feasible since 1) the goal of the IMO is to protect marine environments from harm and 2) reducing Black Carbon emissions is economically favorable since most of the technology required already exists.

Policy Recommendation #2: IASC Monitoring

This recommendation aims to combat the weak monitoring systems throughout the Arctic in an attempt to strengthen the Arctic Council’s long-term iterative process in reducing Black Carbon pollution. Since Black Carbon monitoring in the Arctic is underfunded and scarce, increasing the number of long term research stations is necessary in determining the effectiveness of mitigation strategies. Instead of allowing states to refuse to take action, this process could be done through the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), which has ties to each Arctic nation and has its own funding source. By taking responsibility out of the states’ hands, the likelihood of consistent, effective monitoring is increased. However, some states may still be resistant to the idea of having an outside organization monitor pollution, notably Russia, who has rejected any proposals regarding increased Black Carbon monitoring.

Policy Recommendation #3: Adding Black Carbon as a Greenhouse Agent

In order to combat Black Carbon-induced global warming, which contributes to Arctic Amplification, global Black Carbon emissions must be reduced. Therefore, this third recommendation proposes that Black Carbon be added to the global list of greenhouse agents through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Adding Black Carbon to a list of greenhouse agents under an international agreements will result in all signatory nations being obligated to reduce Black Carbon emissions. Although the addition of clauses to international climate agreements is generally unfavorable due to the reductions in states’ economic power, adding Black carbon to this list would be economically favorable. This is because the technology required to reduce Black Carbon emissions already exists, and mitigating Black carbon would have immediate health benefits due to its short atmospheric lifetime.