Cleaner Air but a Warmer Europe, Research Finds

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

New research initiated jointly by NUI Galway and the University of Helsinki reveals the true rate of greenhouse gas induced global warming has been masked by atmospheric aerosols (otherwise known as Particulate Matter), through their formation of reflective haze and cloud layers leading to an aerosol cooling effect.

 

The new investigations show that the present-day aerosol cooling effect will be strongly reduced by 2030 as more stringent air pollution abatements are implemented both worldwide and at the European scale and as advanced environmental technologies are utilised. These actions are projected to increase the global temperature by 1°C and temperatures over Europe by up to 2-4°C depending on the severity of the action. This is one of the main research outcomes of the recently concluded EUCAARI (European Integrated project on Aerosol Cloud Climate and Air Quality Interaction) project funded by the European Commission.

 

The EUCAARI project, originally initiated by Professor Colin O’Dowd at NUI Galway’s Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies, who resided on the project’s management team, and led by Professor Markku Kulmala of the University of Helsinki, has provided new understanding of the impacts of aerosols and trace gases on clouds and climate.

 

According to Professor O’Dowd:“The quantification of the effect of aerosols on the radiative balance (cooling or heating) of the planet has been one of the most urgent tasks to underpin more informed projections of future climate change. Now that we have this data we need to reinforce European political decision-making to develop new strategies and implementation plans for global air quality monitoring and to take Europe a leading role in developing and applying environmental technologies.  Furthermore, it is urgent that higher-resolution EU-scale projections are conducted using a new generation of regional models nested within the global models.”

 

EUCAARI has been the most extensive atmospheric aerosol research project in Europe so far. The total budget of the project was €15 million, of which €10 million was provided by the European Commission Framework Programme 6. In all, 48 research institutes from 24 countries participated in this project over the period 2007-2010. The project has led to significantly more information on the whole physics background related to aerosol formation and impacts at all scales; from nanoscale to global, and from milliseconds to centuries.

 

The project performed extensive studies from ground-based, aircraft and satellite platforms, not only in Europe, but also in China, South-Africa, Brazil and India (i.e. significant developing countries). These studies have improved the theoretical understanding of the aerosol life-cycle, enabling scientists to make major improvements in climate and air pollution models and present new air pollution scenarios over Europe.

 

Professor O’Dowd added: “The positive impacts of aerosols are partially off-setting global warming while the negative effects impact on public health. Abatement of the negative health impact is complicated due to the diversity of sources, even within Europe.” 

 

EUCAARI found that the reduction in ammonia emissions is one of the most effective ways to reduce aerosol mass concentrations in Europe. Reduction in nitric oxides is also effective, but might lead to higher ozone levels, thereby leading to another negative impact on air quality. Reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions will reduce particulate air pollution especially in the Eastern Mediterranean area.

 

Reduction of organic aerosol concentrations is a lot more challenging and will require reductions of gas and aerosol emissions from transportation and biomass burning. Furthermore, it is now shown that a large fraction of organic aerosols in Europe is of modern origin (as opposed to fossil fuel origins), for which the main sources are biogenic secondary organic aerosol (boreal forests), biomass burning and primary biogenic aerosol particles.”

 

Professor O’Dowd concluded: “All these emission sources are expected to respond to climate change, although we are presently unable to gauge the strength of the multitude of feedback mechanisms involved.  The uncertainties in feedback highlight the need for improved Earth System Climate models to encapsulate feedback processes generally lacking in current projections.”

 

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