Reasons for efficiency: Plain as the smudge on your face

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By Elisa Wood

February 11, 2010

Remember soot? A long time ago, before global warming, getting rid of soot was considered a good reason to make our energy supply cleaner and more efficient. These small dirty particles, created from auto and power plant combustion, discolor walls and do worse to our lungs. Their harm is immediate, yet we seem to have forgotten this, as we’ve become consumed in energy debate about future worries.

Maybe this is because new technologies have helped reduce soot in our environment. But soot (also called particulate matter) has not gone away. In fact, it may be doing more damage to mountain glaciers than carbon dioxide emissions, according to research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A form of soot, black carbon, appears to be a major reason why Himalayan glaciers are disappearing, a huge concern because they feed rivers that provide water for more than a billion people in China and India.

Black carbon, which comes mostly from burning fossil fuels and biomass, absorbs sunlight, so when the snow becomes dirty, it melts faster.

This kind of soot has increased with economic growth in India and China — by 46 percent from 1990 to 2000 and by another 51 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Surabi Menon, lead LBNL scientist on the project.

The findings are significant because they offer a simple way to slowdown snow melt, almost immediately, Menon says, in an article posted on the LBNL site. “Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, but black carbon doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for more than a few weeks, so the effects of controlling black carbon are much faster. If you control black carbon now, you’re going to see an immediate effect.”

Soot is just one of the plain-as-the-smudge-on-your face reasons we’re aiming for a more efficient energy supply. Efficiency also cuts manufacturing expenses, reduces the cost to society of building generating plants and power lines and increases energy independence. These may be obvious, yet we tend not to see them in the US as we become consumed in carbon cap and trade debate.

See the LBNL paper, “Black carbon aerosols and the third polar ice cap,” at

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. thanks for this intresting post, just wanted to say thanks