Tag Archives | black carbon

Black carbon: When climate change and air pollution collide

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of black carbon, but surely you’re familiar with soot, yes? Well, that’s essentially black carbon. So what does soot / black carbon have to do with climate change? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Where does it come from?

Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal), biofuels (e.g., ethanol), and biomass (e.g., wood—anything from fireplaces to forest fires). In developed countries, the majority of black carbon emissions come from burning diesel fuel (think: cars and other forms of transportation). In developing countries, however, most black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating (picture women crouched over charcoal cookstoves, because in addition to being an environmental issue, this one’s also a gender and health issue).

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

The incomplete combustion of coal, mosaic style

How does it work?

Black carbon contributes to global warming both directly and indirectly. Directly in that its little particles, being black, absorb sunlight in the atmosphere and turn that into heat. And indirectly because when deposited on snow and ice, black carbon reduces their reflectivity, so more heat gets absorbed (rather than reflected back into space), making the snow and ice melt faster. The resulting water, being darker in colour, absorbs even more heat, and on and on it goes (remember, we covered this back when we talked about sea ice decline). This makes black carbon a really important driver of climate change in the Arctic.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Black carbon at work in the Arctic, making things go wonky

Timing is everything

Along with a handful of other substances, black carbon is part of a group of super pollutants that, molecule for molecule, punch above their weight in terms of contributing to climate change. These super pollutants are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The “short-lived” part is important: unlike greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, SLCPs have a much shorter atmospheric lifespan (more in the order of days to weeks). This timescale aspect is key. When we reduce emissions of normal GHGs, there’s quite a lag before we see anything happening in terms of falling atmospheric GHG concentrations; what we’ve already put up there stays around for a looooooong time (essentially forever), so there’s no immediate gratification for the fruits of our mitigation labours. But reducing black carbon and other SLCPs has a much more immediate impact because of their short lifecycle. While it remains imperative that we address GHGs writ large, action on SLCPs can buy us a little bit of time and might help avoid those nightmarish scenarios of unchecked climate change.

But you know what’s also great about dealing with black carbon? It’s a local pollutant (soot’s not super great for your lungs, among other things), so in addition to seeing very tangible, short-term global effects in terms of climate change, you also see immediate local public health benefits in terms of things like asthma and other respiratory conditions (and, as mentioned above, in developing countries there’s also a gender angle). That’s a lot of bang for our mitigation buck!

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Black carbon (Potent but actionable)” (2015), 12″ x 12″ — marble, coal, unglazed porcelain, smalti, sea spines

A no-brainer, but not a silver bullet

Now, on my more cynical days, I am sometimes inclined to think that developed countries find dealing with SLCPs an attractive option because it acts as a bit of a smokescreen (*groan*…sorry, I couldn’t resist) in that a lot of the work can be done outside their borders. They pull together some money for cleaner-burning stoves in developing countries, thereby appearing to be benevolent AND serious about dealing with climate change, but they essentially allow themselves to delay taking ambitious action at home, which would inevitably involve taking a long, hard look at fundamental changes to their fossil fuel-based economies. But like I said, that’s on my cynical days, which, admittedly, are too frequent. At the end of the day, action on black carbon and other SLCPs is a no-brainer, both at home and abroad. We should be doing it—it buys us some time and comes with considerable co-benefits—just as long as it’s not the only thing we do.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling -- detail

Just a parting detail shot…

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 3: Black and white

Week 3—working in black and white—was challenging, but in a good way. After last week’s painful foray into the world of ceramic and vitreous tile, it felt really good to get back to using rocks! (By the way, make sure you check out what all the participants made during Week 2.)

Selecting the materials for this challenge was a breeze. I went with limestone (?) from the cottage and some coal from Pennsylvania (sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates). The most time-consuming part was figuring out where I wanted to go in terms of design, and I think that’s because I don’t tend to work with extremes (in terms of colour, size, flow, etc.), so working with black and white threw me off my game a little, but again, in a good way! And yes, I know that the lines of coal are eerily reminiscent of a ghoulish charred skeleton hand… Not intentional, but no matter how I curved them and rearranged them, they just kept looking like that, so I decided not to fight it.

"Black carbon (study)" -- playing around in black and white, testing ideas for a bigger project

“Black carbon (study)” — playing around in black and white, testing ideas for a bigger project

Title: Black carbon (study)

Size: 6″ x 4.75″

How long did it take to complete? Roughly 4 hours

Love or hate this workout? I thought this workout was great. It pushed me out of my comfort zone just enough (because I rarely use big contrasts, like black and white, in my work), but I still felt relatively in control and comfortable because I could work with materials and tools that I knew and liked.

Happy with the result? Yep, I’m pretty happy with the result, although when I get around to making the larger piece there are definitely things that I will change based on what I learned here.

What did I learn? I used this challenge as a chance to try out some ideas that I’ve got kicking around in my head for a larger piece that would be part of the climate change series I’m working on. I’ve never done a test piece / study before, so I found it challenging figuring out how to approach it (i.e., determining what, specifically, I wanted to test out for the bigger piece): Am I supposed to replicate the whole thing, just in miniature? Do just one portion of it? Take some materials and styles for a spin? I opted for the last one, taking the opportunity to work with coal for the first time and play around with size and spacing a bit. The coal wasn’t nearly as difficult to work with as I anticipated (although it was just as messy as I thought it would be!), and I’m looking forward to using it again when I do the larger mosaic. Because I favour gradual, easy transitions, I found it quite challenging to work in black and white, particularly on such a small scale. I’m not sure I really learned how to navigate these contrasts in a confined space, but I did learn that it’s tough and that it’s something I can work on in the future.

Coal is actually kind of pretty, isn't it?

Coal is actually kind of pretty, isn’t it?

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