Evading carbon tunnel vision: a focus on aerosol loading

Nina van Rijn

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3 minutes

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Opinion

Of the nine planetary boundaries, the planetary limits of aerosol loading are yet to be scientifically quantified. As we move away from an aerosol-producing combustion economy, what will this mean for our environment?

April 29, 2022
Image: 
Robert Katzki

Let’s talk about aerosols, baby! We think it’s hot topic

We talked about the carbon tunnel vision before. It’s the phenomenon where most of the world’s leaders and corporate attention is on CO2 reduction, while forgetting about other important environmental hazards that are just around the corner.  

One of those hazards is atmospheric aerosol loading. Tamar Stelling from De Correspondent wrote an inspiring article on the potential threat of aerosols – which are eeeverywhere – to our climate, weather and human health.  

What are aerosols?

Aerosols are all particles in the air, solid or fluid, that are not gasses. Sometimes also referred to as particulate matter. They are the grass pollens we breath, the bacteria we sneeze, the smog around our cities, the Sahara sand that descend on our car windows, the smoke from our exhaust and from the factory down the street, and the steam rising from our kettle.  

Our combustion economy contributes greatly to aerosols: combustion of gas, oil and coal generates – besides CO2 – aerosols.  

What’s the problem with aerosols?

The main problem is actually, that we know far too little about the effect of aerosols on our planet’s health. As you see in the scheme above, atmospheric aerosol loading has still not been quantified by scientists. We don’t know how much of it is in our atmosphere.  

And of that unknown quantity of aerosols in the atmosphere, we don’t know exactly what it does.  

Then what’s the potential problem with aerosols?

Aerosols cool down our planet. Some work as a mirror, reflecting sunlight back to where it came from. This way, the sun’s heat has a more difficult time reaching and warming the earth’s surface. Aerosols also form clouds, as water condenses onto aerosols. Without aerosols, we wouldn’t have clouds. As humans increase the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere, we get more clouds. And clouds also block sunlight.  

As we are moving away from a combustion economy, the amount of aerosols will also decrease. Which is a good thing, as human-induced aerosols are not particularly (pun intended) great for our health.  

Since we have gone full focus into our carbon tunnel, the world has forgotten a bit about aerosols. As a result, we don’t exactly know how much CO2 warms up the planet and how much aerosols cool it down. That also means that if we move away from a combustion economy, it could very well be that at first, our planet becomes warmer. It follows that since we don’t know by how much our planet is cooled by aerosols, we also have no idea by how much it warms up if we cut out the aerosols.

Therefore, we may very well be underestimating the CO2 reduction we need to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.  

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