Asian air pollution could make U.S. summers hotter, but for how long?

So-called "short-lived" gasses and black particle pollution from power plants in Asia and transport in the United States could have a greater influence than previously predicted on temperature changes in North America and elsewhere on Earth, the U.S. Nati

So-called "short-lived" gasses and black particle pollution from power plants in Asia and transport in the United States could have a greater influence than previously predicted on temperature changes in North America and elsewhere on Earth, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week. But is the headline the whole story?

While the general press and blog coverage of the report emphasizes Asia as a cause of warming in the United States, scientists also emphasized that better practices in energy-intensive economies with less-than-clean power plants could be an equally large opportunity for stabilizing the climate. Especially in the case of these short-lived pollutants.

The particles being discussed are considered short-lived because their effect is shorter than that of CO2. Much shorter. While CO2 is a global warming agent until it is chemically changed into something else or sequestered, these particulates and gases affect temperatures on Earth's surface by either absorbing more heat or reflecting more than regular air, but they only do so for days or weeks at a time. Since the NOAA predictions estimate short-lived pollutants will be responsible for approximately 20 percent of global warming by 2050, this is both a great opportunity for improvement and a reminder that the largest culprits still need to be dealt with.

The key advantage to reducing these pollutants may be that the benefits will be seen immediately and previous emissions are not compounded. At least, once the production of these pollutants reduces, that 20 percent of warming could cease very quickly.

Certainly air pollution created in Asia is a significant factor in the global climate. But in the case of this non-CO2-related report, I find the press accounts unnecessarily and perhaps unfairly paint Asia (and yes, it's "Asia" rather than anything more precise) as a culprit.

Without having read the entire report, the NOAA scientists seem to have been more careful. They note that U.S. transport, i.e. automobiles and perhaps airplanes, as well as power generation a hemisphere away are likely to contribute to hot, dry summers in the United States.

What's key to remember, however, when media reports talk about Asian pollution, is that manufacturing-related pollution is not completely Asia's fault. Much of the manufacturing going on in China and other countries in East and South Asia is for export, and the United States is a top market for many countries. When I went to the store recently and bought a bunch of housewares, many items were made in China, and I have no idea under what environmental conditions they were produced. I share responsibility for related pollution. I likewise don't know the environmental pedigrees of many non-Asian products in this room.

This disconnect between our purchase and the emissions it causes is a challenge even for green consumers far more diligent than myself. For consumer pressure, we'll need more life-cycle data about products at the point of the purchase, and meanwhile we'll have to work on some far-reaching strategies to clean up the global manufacturing system. Meanwhile, here's hoping we can get rid of most of this short-term gunk.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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