Reducing air pollution could accelerate climate change

Dramatic cuts to air pollution in Europe and Asia could cause a short-term spike in temperatures and rainfall, according to a study published today (March 5) by researchers at the University of Reading. 

The researchers have looked at the effect of particle pollution on the atmosphere in Europe and China, and investigated changes in temperature extremes under the maximum feasible air pollution reduction.

In the study, which is published in Environmental Research Letters, the scientists have predicted in a worst-case-scenario, the hottest day of the year may be up to 4 degrees hotter by 2050, with 30-40% of this increase due to air pollution cuts.

In a separate study by researchers at Reading University, measurements of sunlight at the Earth’s surface and from space between 1985 – 2015 suggested that increased air pollution over Europe and China has blocked sunlight from reaching the surface, but also heated the air higher in the atmosphere as the pollution particles absorbed more sunlight.

This implies that reducing air pollution, first in Europe and increasingly now in China, has caused surface warming as more sunlight can reach the Earth.

Dr Laura Wilcox, co-author of the study at the University of Reading said: ‘The immediate health benefits of reducing air pollution are clear, but tackling air pollution can initially accelerate climate change.

‘This warming side effect underlines the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly to limit damaging climate change in the long term and give us a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement Targets.

‘This is very much a case of short-term climate pain for long-term gain. It might seem counterproductive to prompt temperature rises by reducing pollution, but this research also shows that this effect will disappear in a few decades.

‘If we carry on emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate, we will see bigger temperature rises that are far longer lasting. This would be incredibly difficult for society to adapt to, and would cause devastating environmental damage.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

Pippa Neill

Pippa Neill

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