Black carbon is an air pollutant described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the most strongly light-absorbing component of particulate matter (PM)” that results from incomplete combustion of fossil fuel. It is considered the second most dangerous air pollutant globally, and is emitted by everything from major manufacturing processes to residential cooking.
When it comes to those who suffer the most from black carbon, countries with few or no regulations on carbon emissions fare the worst, and Latin American nations top the list.
“Black carbon emissions threaten the health of millions in Latin America and contribute to climate disruption already seen in declining Andean glaciers and a drier Amazon Basin, Jake Schmidt, Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDCs) international program director, said during a recent UN climate summit. The good news is some Latin American countries are already taking steps to curb this dangerous climate pollutant. We hope many countries will follow and add additional practical and proven measures to dramatically reduce black carbon. They can improve both public health and the climate that Latin Americans depend on for their livelihood.
The NRDC explained on their blog most countries in Latin America do not adequately monitor or try to combat black carbon, but the good news is that, unlike other air pollutants, black carbon lingers only for days. This means that organized efforts to control black carbon would have immediate positive impacts on public health.
The EPA notes health consequences of black carbon include nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, coughing, difficulty breathing, and premature death in people with lung or heart disease. Children and older adults are the most susceptible to the negative effects of black carbon.
“When we surveyed existing research about black carbons impacts on both climate change and public health, we and our partners at GNA found that in contrast to global information data about these impacts specifically in Latin America was quite sparse,” stated the NRDC. “Much more study needs to be done on both topics to understand the type and extent of the effects that black carbon emissions in Latin America are having on people and the environment. Nevertheless, enough data does exist to show that the problem is serious and warrants government action.”
The NRDC report found that in Latin America:
- Only nine of the 15 countries monitor for fine particulate matter emissions (which covers black carbon);
- The air quality in all of the ten major cities that measure for particulate matter and fine particulate matter exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) recommended levels;
- Brazil, Mexico and Argentina combined have 80 percent of the vehicles in Latin America;
- The countries with the highest growth rate in vehicle fleets were Honduras and Nicaragua;
- Chile and Mexico are the only countries with stringent vehicle emissions standards; and
- Only Chile has fuel quality standards strict enough to allow for major reductions in black carbon.
In order to combat the dangers of black carbon, experts recommended Latin American countries make a few specific changes, including: establishing better air quality monitoring procedures, offer initiatives to encourage people to replace old vehicles, create fuel requirements for vehicles, and establish low emission zones in urban areas that limit vehicle access.
Countries around the world can chart many paths to reduce the threat that climate change poses to our health and to future generations, Amanda Maxwell, NRDCs Latin America Project director, during the summit. Reducing black carbon emissions from cars and trucks is a simple, proven path that Latin America can take advantage of to the benefit of millions of people.
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