Black carbon


September 26th, 2013

According to the BBC News on Tuesday, black soot-containing smoke from cook stoves is heating the atmosphere and accelerating glacial melt in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Soot (or black carbon) released from the incomplete combustion of biomass and biofuels among other things, enters the atmosphere and eventually is deposited on ice and snow, causing it to attract solar radiation rather than reflecting the sun’s rays. As millions of people in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region rely on the melt water from snow and ice melt, the disappearance of glaciers and the resulting impacts of this, is unimaginable.

A haze of smoke hangs over a village in Nepal

A haze of smoke hangs over a village in Nepal

The first part of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be released on Friday 27 September, will provide the most up to date assessment of the physical science basis of climate change (i.e. the man made and natural causes of climate change). The report will include evidence on black carbon and its impacts.  The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which focuses on addressing short-lived climate pollutants that can have harmful impacts on human health, agriculture and ecosystems, has released literature which provides evidence that while there are several sources of black carbon, a significant one is believed to be from household cooking in developing countries.Practical Action has been addressing the problems associated with indoor smoke from cook stoves for more than twenty years.  Currently almost 3 billion people worldwide still cook on open fires using wood, animal dung, crop waste or coal. Every year this results in the death of 4 million people, of which the majority of victims are women and children under five. This is more deaths than malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB combined!

In addition, tackling black carbon releaed from cook stoves, is not as “straightforward” as the BBC suggests, especially if you consider the development as well as environmental challenges. In the 3 years since its inception, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (a partner of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition) has led the drive to promote the uptake of clean cookers, but progress has been slow. Although there are a number of improved cook stoves on the market – the challenge is to persuade women (who invariably do most of the cooking in most developing countries) to purchase and use these improved cook stoves for all their cooking needs.

Improved cook stove with smoke hood

Improved cook stove with smoke hood

Improved stoves and smoke hoods are designed to use less wood, so that women spend less time collecting fuel and it burns more efficiently – and healthily.   The environmental impact of minimising black carbon from more complete combustion should be considerd a positive co-benefit rather than what motivates us to promote cleaner cook stoves, or the reason for poor women to use them.As part of Practical Action’s programme of work on energy, household energy is a key focus area; delivering clean energy to poor men and women who need it most.  As an issue of justice, reducing carbon emissions must be regarded as a secondary issue to people’s health and well-being.  Why should those people who have contributed nothing to the warming of the planet be unjustly burdened with lowering their emissions of black carbon or other greenhouse gases? If the International Community is going to start focusing its attention on black carbon, we should rather start with our own activities that contribute to the problem, such as gas flaring and fossil fuel power plants.

If household cooking is found to be responsible for some of the world’s black carbon, this might result in more funding and a higher profile for this serious health problem, but should not be the driving force for taking action.

Leave a reply