Hunt for the smokeless chulha

Finding alternatives to soot emitting chulhas is a public health priority. The positive impacts on climate change a possible co-benefit. But, will equity at climate talks be the cost India pays?

October 13, 2013 12:57 pm | Updated 12:57 pm IST

Cooking on firewood: A recipe for respiratory problems and even premature deaths. Photo: A. Muralitharan

Cooking on firewood: A recipe for respiratory problems and even premature deaths. Photo: A. Muralitharan

The hunt is again on finding a smokeless chulha (stove) to replace the soot emitting ones in more than 160 million households across the country. This time the hunt is triggered not just by concerns of public health but also climate change. Many new prototypes are emerging. Corporate as well as philanthropic groups and researchers are working across the globe at finding a cheap and versatile enough alternative that could suit the need of people across various sections.

Most attempts so far to achieve success at the scale required have failed. The Centre’s own programme which began in the 1980s — The National Plan for Improved Chulhas —collapsed after large investments. Another was kick started in 2009.

The cook stoves and the soot that arises from burning biomass — firewood, dung and agricultural residues — are now the focus of a global community fighting climate change as well. The soot — or black carbon — is a killer. It causes respiratory problems and leads to premature deaths. Women and children in poor households are the worst hit. The black carbon particles also contribute to global warming.

Burning of diesel in vehicles, too, releases black carbon. In Asia and Africa, burning of solid fuel contributes almost 80 per cent of the black carbon emissions but in Europe, North America and Latin America, 70 per cent of the emissions come from diesel vehicles.

The black carbon particles that result from partial burning of fuel live in the atmosphere for not more than a few weeks. In that period, they absorb the visible spectrum of light and consequently warm up the planet. The soot particles are far more dangerous in their intensity of impacting global temperature as compared to carbon dioxide. Uniquely, these soot particles don’t travel so far and cause warming in the region close to their origin. There is greater certainty in the scientific community about this fact. But the scientists are not sure about how the other organic particles — aerosols — that get released during burning, play with global temperatures.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, notes in a presentation she made recently for South Asian journalists that the warming caused by soot also couples to cause greater public health crisis and could lead to additional deaths and more illness in future.

Ironically though, India’s low per capita emissions of carbon dioxide remain so simply because too many people are still too poor to buy goods that run on oil and electricity. They can afford nothing but firewood and cowpats. If many of these poor people could afford to move away from the health-threatening chulhas to better lives, India would emit much higher levels of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning.

This is when politics of climate change gets triggered. Because black carbon is a short-lived gas with a high potential of causing global warming, many developed countries have begun pushing that these should be shut down or reduced in the near future. Carbon dioxide emissions can be left for a later stage to handle.

But somehow the international wave on this issue focuses mostly on the household chulhas of Asia and Africa. There is rather little talk internationally of addressing the black carbon emissions from diesel vehicles.

So shrill has been the demand for action in Asia, read China and India, that when the debate began some years back, the plumes of black soot in the air got named as Asian Brown Haze singling out by insinuation that the problem lay in Asian countries. Only later did others note that there were plumes of the black soot all over the world and not just Asia, including those from the global shipping industry.

But decades of inaction over reduction of carbon dioxide emissions has now brought the planet to a point that many believe urgency is paramount. Urgent action can be delivered, they believe, by addressing short-lived greenhouse gases such as black carbon. New formations outside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change such as Climate and Clean Air Coalition have been put in place with the support of countries such as the U.S. and Sweden in such a pursuit. Others worry that the focus on short-lived gases puts the onus mostly on developing economies and leaves the rich countries to handle their emissions at a much later stage.

Black carbon emissions do not classify easily into this developed-developing world division easily. For a country such as India, controlling and bringing down soot is also a public health priority. Climate negotiators worry that the onus of change has been thrust on the shoulders of the poor in India and China to fight climate change today but there is realisation that a solution is as much a domestic public health priority.

The Indian government has begun promoting the search for solutions again but the challenge remains to find low-cost solutions which also adjust to the fuel supply options possible across the bio-geographical variance in the country.

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