Cutting common air pollutants that also act as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), however, could both slow the melt of these regions and promote public health. Two common SLCPs, methane and soot, cause respiratory illness and declines in agricultural yields.
Soot, which comes from a variety of sources including diesel-fueled vehicles, cook stoves and open-field and forest burning, is responsible for sickness, premature death and reduced crop yields. The World Health Organization recently classified outdoor air pollution as the most widespread environmental carcinogen, tying it to cancers and respiratory illness. The World Bank estimates that 4 million people die annually from exposure to the smoke of indoor cook stoves.
Methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide, threatens to accelerate warming as it also causes higher levels of ozone, which results in the lowered growth of food crops. Leaks during mining and other fossil fuel extraction activities, such as natural gas fracking, are the primary sources of global methane emissions.
Loss of ice and snow in the cryosphere caused by global warming and air pollution threatens to cut water supplies. Snow and ice melt throughout the year is a major source of drinking water and irrigation for cities and communities. In the Himalayan region alone, 1.5 billion people rely on snow melt to feed the rivers and streams that provide their freshwater.
Warming temperatures disrupt the normally dependable melt of ice and snow to supply freshwater. In some areas, this disruption comes in the form of rapidly melting glaciers causing floods in downstream communities. In others, winter ice and snow levels are shrinking; causing drought conditions for lack of melt. Limiting global warming to safe levels is necessary to maintain the cycle of ice freeze and melt that communities depend upon.
Amanda Maxwell, the Latin America Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, describes how glaciers in South America are ‘going the way of the dinosaurs’ because of climate change and industrial activity, threatening the water supply of millions.
Emissions of black carbon, more commonly known as soot, exacerbate melting. Normally, ice and snow reflect the sun because they are white. With greater levels of smoke and soot in the air, dark pollution particles land on icy areas, causing them to absorb heat — instead of reflecting it — which leads to greater melting.
As vital areas of ice and snow melt with the changing climate, nations cannot only expect to lose vital sources of freshwater, but can also expect to see shorelines disappear. A new feature by National Geographic shows what the world would look like if all of the ice on land was to melt and drain into the sea it would cause a 216-foot (65.8 meter) rise in sea levels.
Additionally, the thawing of the permafrost threatens to release vast stores of carbon dioxide and methane that could warm the global climate past a dangerous point of no return.
Alongside an ambitious plan to reduce long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, cutting SLCPs is a way for nations to comprehensively curb climate change while bringing big benefits to human health.
Implementing the clean energy and efficiency solutions laid out by the World Bank report could result in a host of improvements over business-as-usual, including more than 16 million tons of additional crop yields in Southeast Asia and the prevention of hundreds of thousands of deaths.