Black Carbon and Poverty

Cooking in Kohlua, India. Soot from tens of thousands of villages in developing countries is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, studies say. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times  

Cooking in Kohlua, India. Soot from tens of thousands of villages in developing countries is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, studies say. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

A recent New York Times article in the Environment pages points out some of the climate-risks associated with the burning of dirty fuels, and makes the case for introducing new, cleaner burning stoves to the poor. Skipping over the massive health benefits to women and children who most often tend to the family fires, the article places priority – in part justifiably – on the worlds disappearing glaciers, especially in the Himalayas – linking their demise to a looming water crisis in areas fed by Asia’s big rivers. 

Improving the efficiency and the cleanliness is of fuel-burning stoves should be a priority for several reasons, among them climate change. Its an area that students here at MIT are already tackling in many ways, from solar powered cookers to biogas generators. And could be a great challenge for the IDEAS Global Challenge, though 2011 could be too late. By 2020 it is estimated that the Himalayan glaciers will have lost nearly 75% of its ice. The question might be, in part, whether its time for further experimentation in this domain, or rapid scaling up and dissemination of what already works.

Another more challenging discussion is the impact of such technologies on rural ways of living. The present mode of wood fuel consumption enables a degree of self-reliance among the poor that biogas and other massive efforts might dismiss. Inventions like Amy Smith’s ag waste carbonizer and charcoal press seem to assume a lateral transfer of power – of production, sale and consumption. In that sense it is a truly “pro poor” technology that engenders local control. Whether a biogas or solar cook stove industry enables a similar level of ownership seems an important dimension to the discussion.

[Important to note that the residential burning of wood and other bio fuels accounts for about %18 of black carbon emission, slightly more than diesel fuel (16%). Much more importantly, the clearing of land ("open biomass burning") accounts for 42%].

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