Drew Shindell on regulating greenhouse gases and improving air quality

Drew Shindell is a climate scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Shindell’s goal is to help policy makers decide how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. At a science meeting in late 2009, he spoke with EarthSky about his approach to studying the way emissions interact in Earth’s atmosphere.

Drew Shindel: In a more abstract physical science world, you look at what’s the overall effect of methane, or ozone, or carbon dioxide – one thing at the time. But in fact, if you were to try to reduce emissions, you look at particular activities – like burning coal to generate electricity, or driving vehicles.

Shindell said that burning coal, for example, doesn’t just emit carbon dioxide gas. There are also other particles and gases that escape into the air.

Drew Shindell: These other things that both lead to warming, that are non-CO2 agents, also contribute to air pollution. So it gives us an opportunity to deal with two large-scale environmental problems at once.

Shindell said a good policy would target a greenhouse gas-emitting activity, and regulate it in order to both improve air quality and slow climate change.

Drew Shindell: A joint strategy to deal with both air quality and climate at the same time can provide better solutions to both problems, than the strategy we’ve been pursuing to date, which is looking at both independently. So we’re trying to look at the whole linked system with all its nasty complexities and really identify, what’s the overall effect?

Shindell said that these types of strategies would look different, in different parts of the world.

Drew Shindell: In developing Asia, the most sensible thing might be to target residential burning of biofuel. People use wood, and animal dung, and whatever they can, for cooking. That’s not big in North America, but in North America we have a lot more vehicles. So we’re really trying to take the science down to a level that it can be used for decision-making.

Shindell believes that more attention should be given to the role non-CO2 greenhouse gases and particles play in the atmosphere.

Drew Shindell: I think none of this allows us to ignore CO2, which is still a big pollutant. But I think it’s really a positive opportunity that by dealing with air pollution, we could buy another ten to twenty years to develop better technology to move to a carbon free energy society.

February 22, 2010

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