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Climate change Updated: 10 Nov 2016

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Frontiers of Knowledge award in Climate Change

Veerabhadran Ramanathan has been distinguished with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Climate Change for his discovery of non-CO2 greenhouse gases and pollutants resulting from human activity that have a tremendous impact on the Earth’s climate. Acting to prevent emissions of these gases is feasible and would yield short-term results, contributing to the fight against global warming.

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Thanks to the work of Ramanathan and his collaborators it was possible to discover that the trace gases – thus called because they are less abundant than CO2 – and soot are responsible for 45% of the greenhouse effect attributable to human activity. Also, these gases are 25 to 4,000 times more potent than CO2. However, they remain in the atmosphere for a much shorter time: Days, in the case of soot; up to 15 years in the case of coolants such as the HFCs. CO2 takes centuries to disappear.

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By acting on short-lived gases from here to 2030, we can cut in half projected global warming over the next 35 years.

Ramanathan estimates that if we reduce our emissions of methane 50%, black carbon 90% and fully replace HFCs, by 2030, we can cut in half projected global warming over the next 35 years.

Curbing the emissions of these short-lived pollutants, will have an immediate effect and can dramatically slow global warming within a few decades. These steps would delay environmental disaster and give us time we desperately need to radically change our energy diet,” says Ramanathan.

Ramanathan’s work “has inspired the proposal and testing of practical actions to mitigate climate change in a way that also improves air quality and human health, especially in more impoverished regions of the world,” in the words of the jury, which also highlighted the centrality of the scientist’s contributions in “assessing the strategies being proposed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

In this video you can see the first interview with Ramanathan after being notified of the awarding of the prize. In it, the distinguished professor of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, talks about his work and his advisory role on climate change for prominent religious figures, such as Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama.

A pioneer in the study of the influence of suspended particles in climate change

In 1975, Ramanathan Ramanathan discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases then solely associated with the destruction of the ozone layer, were also powerful drivers of the greenhouse effect: one ton of CFCs traps as much heat in the atmosphere as 10 tons of CO2.

It was later was revealed that other gases such as methane and HFCs – precisely the coolants used in fridges in place of CFCs because they were harmless for the ozone layer – were also potent greenhouse gases. These so-called trace gases responsible for 45% of the greenhouse effect ascribable to human activity.

Ramanathan also pioneered studies on the climate change impact of suspended particles. Thanks to an experiment whereby a flotilla of what we would now call drones flew through a pollution cloud over the Pacific wider than the United States and three kilometers thick, Ramanathan and his colleagues found that soot or black carbon was also a prime culprit in global warming.

These particles, originated by the combustion of fuels in engines, heating and other systems, make up a significant portion of the pollution affecting European cities, and are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands people in poor countries. This discovery inspired Ramanathan to launch Project Surya - the Sanskrit word for “sun” – aimed at getting non-soot emitting and solar stoves into the homes of rural Indians, and monitoring the climate and health effects of the initiative by means of data gathered using mobile phones.

Ramanathan: “the global community must redouble its efforts to tackle trace gases and black carbon… Limiting CO2 emissions alone will not deliver the Paris target.

In fact, the new Frontiers of Knowledge laureate is adamant that after the “memorable” agreement reached in Paris, the global community must redouble its efforts to tackle trace gases and black carbon, in view of the “great opportunity” they offer to make a rapid dent in the rate of warming..

This is not to say that we should concentrate on short-lived gases to the exclusion of any effort on CO2. Rather we need to “press the two levers. Limiting CO2 emissions alone will not deliver the Paris target.” In his view, trace gases and soot represent “a powerful card in our hand, and now is the time to play it.”