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Success of Europe’s Clean Air Policies Reveals Full Extent of Arctic Warming

Photo: AndreAnita/Shutterstock.com
Photo: AndreAnita/Shutterstock.com

As investors increasingly pull out of coal and shift towards renewable energy, new research shows how the drastic improvement in air quality over the previous decades has also revealed the true extent of the rise of Arctic temperatures since the 1980s.

Researchers from Stockholm University and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute say that their surprising finding highlights an even more urgent need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The study shows how sulfate reductions over Europe between 1980 and 2005 could explain a significant portion of what is known as the “amplified warming” (the poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet) in the Arctic region during that period.

“Thanks to air quality regulations implemented in Europe, part of the masking effect of aerosol particles has been reduced, revealing the true warming of the Arctic by greenhouse gases,” says Annica Ekman, co-author of the study and professor at the Bolin Center for Climate Research at Stockholm University.

Strict Regulations

Human activities, such as industrial production, transport, power generation, and wood burning emit large amounts of tiny pollutant particles into the atmosphere, including soot and sulfate.

High airborne amounts of polluting particles, also known as aerosol particles, still cause about 400.000 premature deaths every year in Europe and can be transported over long distances.

Sulfate emissions – which cause acid rain, peaked in the 1980s in Europe and North America – which led to the implementation of strict regulations to reduce them.

The new study published in Nature Geoscience now shows that these policies have had a profound effect on the Arctic.

Cooling effect

Soot particles absorb solar radiation and warm the climate, in a similar way as greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, do.

Sulfate particles, on the other hand, reflect solar radiation and act as seeds for cloud droplet formation, cooling the climate as a result.”

“The overall effect of aerosol particles of human origin on climate has been a cooling one during the last century, which has partially masked the warming caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” says Juan Acosta Navarro, a PhD student at the Bolin Center for Climate Research at Stockholm University, and co-author of the study.

Crowdsourcing Air Quality Monitoring

Despite the success of Europe’s clean air policies, a lot of work remains to be done. Start-ups around Europe are getting increasingly creative in finding new ways to measure air quality – and making the data easily available to consumers, businesses and policy makers.

A start-up supported by Climate-KIC, Plume Labs, has created a smartphone app that provides personalised air quality forecasts. If you’re in the UK, you may have heard about their Pigeon Air Patrol in the Evening Standard, the Guardian and BBC News this week.

Beyond their Pigeon campaign – the start-up has equipped pigeons with air quality sensors – Plume Labs is looking for Londoners who want to wear their own sensors and create “the first human-powered air pollution monitoring network.”

The scientists, meanwhile, expect further warming in the Arctic as levels of greenhouse gases continue to increase, and levels of aerosol particle emissions decrease while initiatives like the Pigeon Air Patrol keep combating air pollution.

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