Black carbon: are the poor easy answers

There has been a growing interest in the issue of black carbon -- light absorbing carbon particles, also called soot in our world.

It was earlier believed that these particles cooled the Earth, now scientists say the impact is the reverse. The particles absorb sunlight and warm up the atmosphere and so the earth. Also, deposits on snow, absorb sunlight and so heat and melt the glaciers. Read the overview by Jessica Seddon Wallack and Veerabhadran Ramanathan in Foreign Policy journal, September and October 2009. All this has lead scientists to conclude that black carbon is today the world's big problem in terms of climate change. They say it contributes to global warming, though interestingly, while the same scientists earlier put the figure at 18-20 of the total contribution coming from black carbon, now they say, it contributes substantially, not cannot put a figure to it.

I will not dispute the science of black carbon. Only what we can do about it. The fact is the a large proportion of the black carbon is emitted from stoves -- using biomass -- in the developing world. Women, and it is invariably, women, walk long distances, collect firewood, leaves or dry cow dung, to burn in their stoves to cook their food. They are exposed to air pollutants and suffer its toxicity. These stoves are bad for women, no question about it.

So what do we do? The assumption of western commentators and scientists is that this the easy -- cherry picking --option for dealing with climate change. In this paper, Wallack and Ramanathan repeat the point: "limiting their presence in the atmosphere is an easier, cheaper, and more politically feasible proposition than the most popular proposals for slowing climate change and it would have a more immediate effect". This assumption completely misses the point of why people use these stoves and what can be done about it.

Frankly, the only real option today is for each person who uses a 'incomplete combustion stove' to move up the energy trajectory to what most of us use -- LPG or electricity to cook food in our stoves. In fact, it is part of the appalling energy poverty of our world that vast numbers still use stoves, which harm their bodies. But in this technology option, let us also be clear, there would be even fewer people using renewable energy -- non-fossil fuel based energy sources.  So, yes, we should invest in better stoves and find technologies that can leapfrog the poor from using dirty biomass to clean biomass. We know that. But there are real issues out there why this transition does not happen. On the other hand, there are real and easier alternatives to driving SUV's... So, it is important to get a perspective on these issues. Read also my comment published in Down To Earth, Challenge of the Chulha.

There is also the real and difficult issue that these emissions are what can be known as survival emission as against the luxury emissions that you and I emit, every time we take our car, instead of the bus. My colleague Anil Agarwal drew this distinction many many years ago, when we wrote our book, Global Warming in an Unequal World.  On the cover is my favourite cartoon, which started us on this journey of climate change in the early 1990s.