The attack of the super-pollutants

First posted in Capitol Weekly

By Bill Magavern

As Hollywood brings a new crop of super-hero movies to our theaters, state policymakers are considering action against a group of particularly nefarious villains known as “super-pollutants.”  These contaminants, including black carbon and methane, are both rapidly warming our planet and also damaging human health.

The more technical term for these super-baddies is “short-lived climate pollutants,” because these are powerful greenhouse forces that remain in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time than major climate pollutants such as carbon dioxide. For example, methane – also known as natural gas – which is responsible for about 20 percent of current net climate forcing globally, has a lifetime of only 12 years, compared to about 100 years for carbon dioxide. This means that prompt actions to reduce methane emissions — like prevention of the type of massive natural gas release that recently plagued residents of Porter Ranch – can play a major role in limiting catastrophic climate change.

Recent studies have shown that another super-pollutant, black carbon, plays a greater role in global warming than previously believed. Black carbon is found in airborne particulate matter that is emitted by burning fuels like diesel and wood, and it also causes lung and heart disease and premature death. California has succeeded in reducing black carbon by 90 percent over the last 50 years, primarily by reducing particulate matter from diesel exhaust and wood burning, and for the sake of our health and our climate we must continue that progress. About half of the diesel particulate emissions statewide come from goods movement, so it is essential that we clean up the freight system, as called for by Governor Brown’s executive order of last year.

During legislative consideration of the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32, Nuñez/Pavley, 2006) and during the early years of its implementation, I was among a small band of experts and advocates who urged quick and aggressive action, as warranted by scientific data, to reduce the generation of super-pollutants, but the Schwarzenegger Administration at that time resisted taking such action. Fortunately, Governor Brown and the Air Resources Board have taken a much more pro-active stance on curbing super-pollutants.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara is the legislative hero who has led the attack on the super-pollutants. Two years ago he authored SB 605, which requires the Air Resources Board to develop a plan to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants. That plan is now under consideration by ARB, which has held several public workshops and hearings on it and should adopt it later this year. The plan lays out effective strategies that will show the rest of the country and the entire world how to curb these dangerous climate forcers.

Lara this year is taking the next step with his SB 1383, which would require ARB to begin implementing its plan and set specific targets for reductions of the major super-pollutants – methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbon gases – that are based on ARB’s scientific research. That bill, which will be on the Senate floor this week, would help to relegate the super-pollutants to the ranks of villains vanquished by sound California policies.

Bill Magavern is policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air

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