Surplus engines from Japan and climate change
Everytime you are out on the streets in many cities in Asia, you may have noticed the soot and grime on your face, your hair, on road signs and windows, and in your lungs. That soot is a public health menace, but as scientists have pointed out, also a major climate change agent. Journal papers such as those published by scientists Ramanathan and Carmichael in
Nature state that black carbon is a powerful climate change agent.
To a large extent, that is caused by the fact that in many poor countries in Asia, the public transport vehicles (such as Philippine jeepneys and Thai tuktuks) are assembled together in small shops, sometimes using surplus engines. Surplus engines are used because they are cheap, and the profit margins for these public transport vehicles are extremely thin, thus ruling out the latest clean versions of diesel and gasoline engines. And a lot of these surplus engines come from Japan.
The substance many of these poorly maintained salvaged engines emit is black carbon (which we commonly call soot). It is the byproduct of inefficient combustion from poorly designed cookstoves, badly maintained engines used by public transport, dry brush clearing fires, and the like. This means it is actually easy to fix. But actually doing so is another issue, again cost being a major factor.
Last February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an international initiative to curtail the emission of short-lived climate forcers such as black carbon (which we commonly call soot) and CFC refrigerants. By short-lived, this means that unlike greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that stay in the atmosphere for a very long time, substances like black carbon settle down to earth much more quickly. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), cutting back on short-lived climate pollutants may reduce global warming expected by 2050 by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius.
As anyone who has touched a dark-colored automobile on a hot summer day can attest, dark substances such as black carbon absorb (and do not reflect) sunlight and instead emit heat to their surroundings. In the Arctic, black carbon carried by winds lessen the reflectivity of ice and accelerate the melting, thus reducing the ability of ice sheets to reflect sunlight back to space.
Black carbon in the atmosphere is a well-known public health issue. In many countries, black carbon concentrations are high enough especially in the cities to cause significant public health issues such as asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems. While enforcement of anti-smog laws and the availability of cleaner fuels and better engine technologies have remedied the problem to some extent in developed countries such as the U.S. and Japan, in Third World Asian countries it is another matter altogether.
Because black carbon pollution is a “tragedy of the commons” (or a common problem that affects everyone) often there has been no financial incentive to remedy the problem. Where anti-smog laws exist in developing countries, these have oftentimes been rendered inutile by poor enforcement in many cases. Thus, the status quo in many developing countries is to continue with poorly designed cookstoves, brush clearing fires, or to use cheap surplus rebuilt engines for public transport, thus contributing to the air pollution problem.
While not all surplus engines are bad – some can be put into pretty good shape with a decent car repair shop and the right replacement parts, obviously exporting used engines which should already be scrap for steel plants should be stopped. For example, engines with all the parts significantly worn down and with their crankcases broken should already be scrapped in Japan and not sent elsewhere where the temptation to reuse these is pretty strong.