Black Carbon Threatens World Heritage Sites

International groups ask UNESCO to take action at June meeting in Seville, Spain


Jessica Lawrence, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6751
Keely Boom, Australian Climate Justice Program, +61-2-4294-8926

The Australian Climate Justice Program and US-based Earthjustice have petitioned UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to take action to protect some of the world’s most unique and treasured places from the global warming impacts of black carbon pollution. Black carbon is a key cause of global warming and of snow and ice melting, particularly in the Arctic and in mountainous areas. Glacier loss and the resulting sea level rise threaten many places included on the World Heritage List, sites recognized as exhibiting outstanding natural and cultural values. Immediate action is necessary to protect many World Heritage sites including Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S./Canada border, the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland, and Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, where Mount Everest is located.

Recent scientific studies have found black carbon — a component of soot that comes from the burning of fossil fuels and plant materials — to be a key cause of climate change. Black carbon has a strong warming effect both in the atmosphere, and when it lands on snow, ice caps and glaciers, where it absorbs the sun’s heat, reduces reflectivity and causes widespread and faster melting, causing sea level rise and other climate changes.

Because black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only a few days — unlike other greenhouse gases, which may remain in the atmosphere for over a century — reducing black carbon emissions may be among the most effective near-term strategies for slowing global warming and avoiding some of the most imminent climate change tipping points. Yet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change does not address the contribution of this important global warming pollutant.

The petition urges the World Heritage Committee to step into the breach to preserve World Heritage sites until the long-term effects of the UNFCCC process can be realized. The petition requests the Committee to place climate-threatened sites on the “List of World Heritage in Danger,” to advance research and mitigation strategies to reduce black carbon, and to encourage the UNFCCC and governments to take action to reduce the threat posed by black carbon.

“With immediate action, the World Heritage Committee can assist States Parties to reduce emissions of this pollutant and slow the rate of glacial melt and resulting sea level rise that threaten World Heritage sites such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park,” said Keely Boom of the Australian Climate Justice Program.

“Because black carbon has an atmospheric lifetime of only days or weeks, reducing emissions could have an immediate effect to slow global warming in the near term,” said Jessica Lawrence of Earthjustice.

Black Carbon: A Powerful Global Warming Pollutant

Black carbon is released into the atmosphere during the inefficient burning of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. It is often transported long distances by air currents. Because the dark-colored particles absorb sunlight, black carbon warms the top of the atmosphere. When deposited on ice and snow, it reduces the albedo, or reflectivity, of these surfaces, and increases the rate of melting. As these surfaces melt, the darker water or land exposed below absorbs more incoming sunlight, causing additional warming. Black carbon is considered to be the second most powerful contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.

Unlike CO2 and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming for decades or centuries once in the atmosphere, black carbon is a short-lived forcer, remaining in the atmosphere for days to weeks. Because of this, reducing black carbon emissions can be an effective rapid response to slow warming in the near term, protecting arctic and montane glaciers as well as snow pack and permafrost, and buying critical time to realize reduction in long-lived greenhouse gases like CO2. Black carbon emissions can be sharply reduced with existing technologies, for example by improving the efficiency of fuel combustion; switching to less polluting fuels in ships, locomotives and aircraft; installing particle traps on diesel vehicles, generators, and smokestacks of power plants and industrial facilities; controlling agricultural residue burning; and providing alternatives such as charcoal briquettes and more efficient stoves to reduce the use of  raw coal, wood and dung fuels for cooking and residential heating.

Read the petition (PDF)

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