India’s need to curb black carbon emissions | Explained

What is black carbon and why is it harmful for the environment? Which sector in India is the biggest contributor of black carbon? How has the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana helped in reducing the use of traditional cooking fuels?

Updated - March 27, 2024 01:42 pm IST

Published - March 26, 2024 10:41 pm IST

Women make tea on an earthen stove in Hisar District, Haryana.

Women make tea on an earthen stove in Hisar District, Haryana. | Photo Credit: File Photo

The story so far: At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021, India pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070, positioning itself as a frontrunner in the race to carbon neutrality. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India had installed a renewable energy capacity of over 180 GW by 2023 and is expected to meet its target of 500 GW by 2030. While carbon dioxide mitigation strategies will yield benefits in the long term, they need to go hand-in-hand with efforts that provide short-term relief.

Why is black carbon relevant?

Black carbon is the dark, sooty material emitted alongside other pollutants when biomass and fossil fuels are not fully combusted. It contributes to global warming and poses severe risks. Studies have found a direct link between exposure to black carbon and a higher risk of heart disease, birth complications, and premature death. Most black carbon emissions in India arise from burning biomass, such as cow dung or straw, in traditional cookstoves.

According to a 2016 study, the residential sector contributes 47% of India’s total black carbon emissions. Industries contribute a further 22%, diesel vehicles 17%, open burning 12%, and other sources 2%. Decarbonisation efforts in the industry and transport sectors in the past decade have yielded reductions in black carbon emissions, but the residential sector remains a challenge.

Has PMUY helped?

In May 2016, the Government of India said the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) would provide free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to households below the poverty line. The primary objective was to make clean cooking fuel available to rural and poor households and reduce their dependence on traditional cooking fuels. The PMUY has established infrastructure to go with LPG connections, including free gas stoves, deposits for LPG cylinders, and a distribution network. The programme has thus, been able to play a vital role in reducing black carbon emissions, as it offers a cleaner alternative to traditional fuel consumption. The programme has provided connections to over 10 crore households as of January 2024.

However, in 2022-2023, 25% of all PMUY beneficiaries — 2.69 crore people — availed either zero LPG refill or only one LPG refill, according to RTI data, meaning they still relied entirely on traditional biomass for cooking. The Hindu found in August 2023 that the average PMUY beneficiary household consumes only 3.5-4 LPG cylinders per year instead of the six or seven a regular non-PMUY household uses. This means up to half of all the energy needs of a PMUY beneficiary household are still met by traditional fuels, which have high black carbon emissions. A shortage of LPG and higher usage of traditional fuels also affect women and children disproportionately. They are more prone to higher levels of indoor air pollution, causing many health issues and leading to premature deaths.

What is the government’s role?

The key to enhancing the quality of life in these areas lies primarily in securing access to clean cooking fuels. While the future holds the promise of meeting energy needs in rural areas through renewable sources, the immediate benefits for rural communities are poised to come from using LPG.

In October 2023, the government increased the LPG subsidy to ₹300 from ₹200. But with rapid increase in LPG prices over the last five years, the cost of a 14.2-kg LPG cylinder, even with an additional subsidy, is still about ₹600 per cylinder. Most PMUY beneficiaries find the price too high, more so since cow dung, firewood, etc. are ‘free’ alternatives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a further price reduction of ₹100 in March 2024, but this subsidy is expected to be temporary. The government has estimated that about ₹12,000 crore will be spent on PMUY subsidies in 2024-2025, a figure that has continuously increased each year since the scheme’s inception. While it is the rightful duty of the government to make clean fuel affordable through subsidies, the problem of low refill rates will persist if availability issues are not addressed.

Another big hurdle to the PMUY’s success is the lack of last-mile connectivity in the LPG distribution network, resulting in remote rural areas depending mostly on biomass. One potential solution to this issue is the local production of compressed bio-methane (CBM) gas by composting biomass. CBM is a much cleaner fuel with lower black-carbon emissions and investment. Panchayats can take the initiative to produce CBM gas locally at the village level, ensuring every rural household can access clean cooking fuel.

What about the global stage?

As India navigates its responsibilities on the global stage towards long-term decarbonisation, there is an urgent need to act. Prioritising black carbon reduction through initiatives such as the PMUY scheme can help India become a global leader in addressing regional health concerns and help meet its Sustainability Development Goal of providing affordable clean energy to everyone and contributing to global climate mitigation.

Recent estimates have indicated that mitigating residential emissions will avoid more than 6.1 lakh deaths per year from indoor exposure to air pollution.

The authors work at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP).

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