WHITE PAINT AS CLIMATE SAVIOUR?: Essay

English_Master March 23, 2016 No Comments

WHITE PAINT AS CLIMATE SAVIOUR?

With the US climbing onto the global warming band­wagon at last week’s G-8 meeting, India and China will come under pressure to curb their energy use and carbon emissions. China will overtake the US as the biggest carbon emitter by 2008, and India will follow in two decades.

India and China resist curbs on energy use. They emit a tiny fraction of US emissions in per capita terms. That will not let them off the hook: global warming is caused by total emissions, not per capita emissions.

I regard catastrophic global warming as a plausible hy­pothesis, not a proven fact. But Western popular pressure for immediate action to check warming is enormous, and irre­sistible. Moral pressure on India and China will soon be but­tressed by economic pressure, maybe even sanctions.

Is there a low-cost way to respond to this threat? India should learn from research by Dr Govindasamy Bala and his colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Cali­fornia. Most climate models calculate the impact of different gas concentrations on global temperature. But Bala’s model goes further, including the impact of photosynthesis.

Trees are dark in colour, and so absorb sunlight, causing warming. But trees also absorb water and send it into the at­mosphere through their leaves. This aids cloud formation, di­minishing warming. On balance, tropical trees cool the world.

The opposite is true in forests at high latitudes. Transpi­ration is slow there. If temperate forests are cut, much more snow will be exposed in winter, and this snow will reflect back sunlight instead of absorbing it. This produces cooling through reflection – the so-called albedo effect.

Now, if all the world’s trees are cut, Bala’s model shows that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double by 2100. A disaster, you might think. Yet, the model shows that global temperature will actually fall by 0.3 degrees Celsius.

How can the world get colder despite double the carbon emissions? The model shows that deforestation will heat up the tropics, but the albedo effect of snow reflection in high latitudes will produce a huge cooling effect. On balance, the cooling albedo effect will exceed the warming effect of dou­bling carbon in the atmosphere.

Bala and his colleagues conclude that tree growth needs to be promoted in the tropics rather than temperate latitudes. But a more important implication is that the world should seek to increase the albedo effect, not just aim for carbon re­ductions.

We can increase the albedo effect in many ways. The most obvious is to convert vast man-made surfaces across
the world from dark colours to white, reflecting more sun-light.

The albedo effect of painting every roof in the world white will be substantial. White roof tiles will be more ex­pensive but more durable than white paint. Broken white china could be used cheaply on India’s flat cement roofs. The re­sultant cooling will reduce the use of fans and air-condition­ers.

We use millions of vehicles of all sorts. If all cars, trucks, railway carriages and ships and painted white, they will reflect a lot of sunlight.

Asphalt used in roads and airports is black, and absorbs

sunlight. Cement is somewhat less dark. Why not mix white                    colour (chalk might suffice) in all asphalt and cement used in   external surfaces?

White is not the only colour that reflects sunlight. Silver paint   could be as effective, and may be some metallic colours. But white will be the cheapest.

Some imaginative folk want to float huge arrays of white planks on the oceans to reflect sunlight. Others suggest launch­ing massive white parasols, the size of several football fields, into outer space, to block sunlight. We must study possible undesirable side effects of such ideas. Someday, such ideas may prove both cost-effective and safe.

But for starters, white paint is the simplest, cheapest way for India to do its bit to check warming. It is obviously a very partial solution. If global warming is a real threat, it needs to be tackled by a dozen strategies, ranging from energy conser­vation and biofuels to solar energy and carbon capture. But increasing the albedo effect should be one such strategy, much simpler and cheaper than capping carbon emissions.

The government could mandate mixing white colour in asphalt/cement in public works, and white roofs in building standards. And it could offer subsidies to paint existing hous­es and vehicles white. This will not cost much if it qualifies for carbon credits under the Kyoto Agreement.

I foresee opposition from ideologues for whom carbon reduction has become an end in itself, and from industrial lobbies seeking profits from carbon reductions. Re­mind them of Bala’s research finding in California: even if carbon in the atmosphere doubles, the albedo effect can actu

ally reduce global temperatures.