In a study published this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, it suggests that all of the worldwide efforts to clean up pollution, specifically air pollution, may be actually hurting the environment, reports Scientific American.
The study suggests that eliminating the human emission of aerosols, tiny air-polluting particles often released by industrial activities, could result in additional global warming of anywhere from half a degree to 1 degree Celsius.
This would virtually ensure that the planet will warm beyond the most stringent climate targets outlined in the Paris climate agreement. World leaders have set an ambitious goal of keeping global temperatures within 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of their pre-industrial levels.
But research suggests the world has already warmed by about 1 degree—meaning even another half a degree of warming could push the planet into dangerous territory.
“Since we’re trying to keep to a 1.5- or 2-degree target, then this is something we still need to keep in mind,” said Bjørn Samset, a climate scientist at Norway’s CICERO Center for International Climate Research and the study’s lead author.
Aerosols don’t linger in the atmosphere very long, so they don’t have time to spread around the world the way carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases do.
The removal of aerosols could have striking regional consequences by causing major changes in precipitation and other weather patterns in certain parts of the world.
This means the places where air pollution is most severe are likely to experience some of the greatest effects if that pollution were to disappear. East Asia, where aerosol emissions are some of the highest in the world, would be likely to experience a strong increase in precipitation and extreme weather events, reports Scientific American.
“We also see that the impact that these aerosols have on temperature in Asia really transports northwards to the Arctic region, northern Europe, Norway, the northern U.S.,” Samset noted. “That part of the world is also quite sensitive to the changes in aerosols in Asia.”
Scientists have known for quite some time now that aerosols and other types of pollution like it can actually help cool the climate. Everyone has been worried about trying to clean the air of pollutants, that no one has ever asked what will happen to the climate once all of those pollutants are gone.
As nations around the world have begun to crack down on air pollution, scientists have grown interested in figuring out how much extra warming might be expected as they disappear. This is critical information for strategizing ways to meet global climate goals, like the 2-degree target.
Because it’s still uncertain exactly how quickly aerosol emissions will decline in the future, some scientists believe a greater variety of possible scenarios should be investigated.
“I think we need to have more variety in those projections, since even matching up the real world today with the emissions projections from 2000 that we used last time shows a significant mismatch,” said Schmidt, the NASA scientist (who was not involved with the new research), in an email to E&E News.