Air pollution and climate change

There is wide agreement among climate researchers today that our emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting the Earth's radiation balance. Air pollution and climate change can be considered as two sides of the same coin.

Some of the short-lived, toxic compounds traditionally considered to be air pollutants may also affect the climate. Ozone and particles are known to have a great impact on the radiation balance of the Earth and are consequently included in the climate change assessments. It is thus not possible to unambiguously separate many compounds into distinct groups of either air pollutants or climate-influencing gases and particles.

Ground-level ozone

Ozone has the shortest life of all the substances that act as significant greenhouse gases. Its lifetime in the troposphere is just weeks or months. Ozone acts as a greenhouse gas in the lower troposphere, and the concentration has increased in recent decades, which resulted in ozone being rated the third most significant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane by IPCCexternal link, opens in new window.


Particles play an increasing, not yet fully understood role in the climate system. Different types of particles can influence climate, either as magnifiers of as suppressors of the global warming effect. "White" particles (e.g. sulphate particles originating from emissions of sulphur dioxide) with high capacity to reflect sunlight mainly act as a cooling agent, while soot and other "black" particles have great capacity to absorb sunlight. In addition, particles are significant in the formation and duration of clouds, as well as their ability to reflect sunlight. The complexity of the optical properties, and the uneven distribution of particles in the atmosphere, makes estimates of the role if particles in the climate system highly uncertain.

To a substantial extent, air pollutants and greenhouse gases are emitted from the same sources. As such, a well designed climate change mitigation strategy can have co-benefirs i terms of improved air quality. Similarly, an optimal strategy to decrease air pollution is likely to help combat the climate change.

Sources: Air and the environmentexternal link, opens in new window by P.Elvingson and C.Ågren,
Air Pollution and Climate Change - Two sides of the same coinexternal link, opens in new window by Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Authors, 2009

Updated: 2012-10-16
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