Wide Spread and Complex Climatic Changes Outlined in New UNEP Project Atmospheric Brown Cloud Report
Cities Across Asia Get Dimmer: Impacts on Glaciers, Agriculture and the Monsoon Get Clearer
Beijing/Nairobi, 13 November 2008 - Cities from Beijing to New Delhi are getting darker, glaciers in ranges like the Himalayas are melting faster and weather systems becoming more extreme, in part, due to the combined effects of human-made Atmospheric Brown Clouds (ABCs) and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The brown clouds, the result of burning of fossil fuels and biomass, are in some cases and regions aggravating the impacts of greenhouse gas-induced climate change, says the report.
This is because ABCs lead to the formation of particles like black carbon and soot that absorb sunlight and heat the air; and gases such as ozone which enhance the greenhouse effect of CO2.
Globally however brown clouds may be countering or 'masking' the warming impacts of climate change by between 20 and up to 80 per cent the researchers suggest.
This is because of particles such as sulfates and some organics which reflect sunlight and cool the surface.
The cloud is also having impacts on air quality and agriculture in Asia increasing risks to human health and food production for three billion people.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said: "One of UNEP's central mandates is science-based early warning of serious and significant environmental challenges. I expect the Atmospheric Brown Cloud to be now firmly on the international community's radar as a result of today's report".
The phenomenon has been most intensively studied over Asia. This is in part because of the region's already highly variable climate, including the formation of the annual monsoon, and the fact that the region is home to around half the world's population and is undergoing massive growth.
But the scientists today made clear that there are also brown clouds elsewhere, including over parts of North America, Europe, southern Africa and the Amazon Basin which also require urgent and detailed research.
"Combating rising CO2 levels and climate change is the challenge of this generation, but it is also the best bet the world has for Green Growth, including new jobs and new enterprises from a booming solar and wind industry to more fuel efficient vehicles, homes and workplaces.
Developed countries must not only act first but also assist developing economies with the finance and clean technology needed to green energy generation and economic growth," said Mr Steiner.
"In doing so, they can not only lift the threat of climate change but also turn off the soot- stream that is feeding the formation of atmospheric brown clouds in many of the world's regions. This is because the source of greenhouse gases and soot are often one and the same—unsustainable burning of fossil fuels, inefficient combustion of biomass and deforestation," he added.
Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, head of the UNEP scientific panel which is carrying out the research said: "I would like to pay tribute to my distinguished colleagues, drawn from universities and research centres in Asia including China, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Thailand as well as Europe and the United States."
"Our preliminary assessment, published in 2002, triggered a great deal of awareness but also skepticism. That has often been the initial reaction to new, novel and far reaching, counter-intuitive scientific research," he said.
"We believe today's report brings ever more clarity to the ABC phenomena and in doing so must trigger an international response—one that tackles the twin threats of greenhouse gases and brown clouds and the unsustainable development that underpins both," added professor Ramanathan who is based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California.
"One of the most serious problems highlighted in the report is the documented retreat of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, which provide the headwaters for most Asian rivers, and thus have serious implications for the water and food security of Asia," he said.
"The new research, by identifying some of the causal factors, offers hope for taking actions to slow down this disturbing phenomenon; it should be cautioned that significant uncertainty remains in our understanding of the complexity of the regional effects of ABCs and more surprises may await us," added Professor Ramanathan.
For more on atmospheric effects of brown clouds, go here.