Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy! Stop the sooty show

An unfortunate orthodoxy has developed on climate change, the main elements of which are: 1) climate change is the fault of the rich nations and the capitalist system; 2) the rich nations should cut their carbon emissions drastically and compensate poor countries for all the impacts of climate change; 3) poor countries have an absolute right to develop by increasing their emissions; 4) carbon trading and offsets are a new form of global colonialism in which rich countries dump their waste carbon and make the poor pay for it.

This orthodoxy is riddled with contradictions. Many "rich" countries are near bankrupt, while many of the "poor" ones are awash with cash. This is one reason the Copenhagen conference last December failed. Deeply indebted "rich" countries are not about to make even deeper cuts in social spending, to hand over billions to "poor" countries whose emissions are soaring, and which may even be their creditors.

The final declaration of the recent climate summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was a fine exposition of the orthodoxy: it demanded that developed countries "honour their climate debt in all of its dimensions", "decolonise the atmosphere", "assume the costs and technology transfer needs of developing countries", "deal with damages arising from their excessive emissions" and open their borders to "hundreds of millions" of climate migrants.

But, in putting the blame entirely on "rich" countries, the orthodoxy misses a key component of the climate crisis - one in which poor countries are mainly responsible. Carbon is more than just carbon dioxide (CO2). It is also "black carbon", or soot, which plays a huge role in climate change - both warming the atmosphere and accelerating the melting of glaciers and snowfields from the Andes to the Arctic.

Soot warms by darkening the air and surfaces it lands on, such as snow and ice, so that more of the sun's heat is absorbed. A single tonne of soot causes, over its typical two-week residence, the same warming as 1,600 tonnes of CO2 in 20 years. The warming caused by soot is over half again as much as that caused by CO2.

The biggest source of soot, at 41 per cent, is the open burning of biomass from the clearance of pastures, forests and farmland. Next are wood- and coal-burning domestic stoves, at 26 per cent. Transport-sector emissions follow, with 19 per cent, mainly from smoky diesel and two-stroke engines. Industry weighs in at just 8 per cent.

And the top three soot emitters are . . . Asia, Africa and Latin America, with 6.6 megatonnes per year between them. The US, Canada, Europe and the former USSR collectively emit just 1.3 megatonnes (2000 figures). The highest per-capita soot emissions take place in Latin America, at more than 2.5kg per person, closely followed by Africa. That's equivalent to four tonnes of CO2 over 20 years.

So what's the answer? First, scrap the orthodoxy. Not only does it encapsulate a way of thinking that is certain to block any international climate agreement - it's also plain wrong. Next, introduce a co-operative interpretation of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which underpins the 1992 UN climate convention - in which poor countries as well as rich contribute to climate solutions. And make the reduction of soot emissions a top global priority - one that will deliver substantial and immediate benefits for our climate, as well as improve human health.

Mark Lynas is away until August.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope