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Dust threatens Kyoto protocol

Publication date: Mar 21, 2006 3:49:08 PM

On the eve of the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, scientists at UCL have detected a flaw in the Kyoto protocol's global plans to reduce the impact of global warming, all because of something as simple as atmospheric dust.

Dr Mark Maslin of UCL's Environmental Change Research Centre explains: "Dust is vital to the health of the planet. This is not household dust, but tiny fragments of rock and soil, almost too small to see with the naked eye."

Billions of tons of this dust are blown away each year, particularly from the world's arid regions where huge dust clouds can be seen from space. Much of it lands in the world's oceans. Dust provides the oceans with iron, which is essential for the growth of microscopic plants. These marine organisms soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; the world's most notorious greenhouse gas.

However, measures outlined in the Kyoto protocol propose land use changes that would reduce the amount of dust delivered to the oceans and therefore the capacity of the oceans to soak up carbon dioxide. The Kyoto protocol is the strategy negotiated by 160 developed nations to combat global warming.

Many governments favour the expansion of 'carbon sinks' on land to soak up greenhouse gases rather than taking steps to reduce their national emissions. These terrestrial carbon sinks will be achieved by changing agricultural practices and planting new forests. But these measures will also help protect soil from wind erosion, restricting the supply of dust to the ocean.

This is the first time that a scientist has quantified the link between oceanic dust and future climate change. The impact of the Kyoto measures on the oceanic dust will depend on where and in what timescale they are carried out.

The research was due to be discussed at a two day summit organised by UCL on London's Environment in September but was considered by the summit organiser and former Met Office Head, Lord Julian Hunt, as too important to delay publication.

Speaking today, Dr Mark Maslin said: "This initial study highlights the need for a holistic approach to climate change if we are to understand how the system responds to human intervention. By taking a narrow view of the Earth system and ignoring something as simple as dust, the measures designed in Kyoto to protect our planet must be treated with great caution."


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