The Hot Zone

Small is beautiful

Posted by Alison Hawkes on April 2, 2010
Category : The Politics of Climate Change, The man made climate

It’s easy to get caught up in the promise of geoengineering. No sacrifice required, no real change in the way we do business. It becomes easy to overlook reachable efforts when a technology fix is all that’s considered needed. But one reachable effort that has no discernibly negative effects deserves more attention: cooking stoves. They’re certainly not as sexy as giant reflectors orbiting the Earth, or pumping CO2 deep underground, but we pretty much know that stoves will work.

Much of the developing world — some 2 billion people — do their cooking on smoky fires that burn available biomass like dried dung, wood, brush, and crop residues. All the carbon goes immediately up in the atmosphere and also creates black carbon, the result of incomplete combustion. The dark particulate matter warms the atmosphere by absorbing sunlight and then settles back to Earth where it creates a darkening, warming effect on surfaces.

Recent research has summarized that black carbon is the No. 2 culprit to rising temperatures, responsible for nearly 20 percent of global warming. Black carbon has largely been controlled in the West, through regulations on emission sources like vehicles and coal-fired power plants. But, of course, the massive daily burning of fuels in the developing world has no restraint. In population centers around the Himalayan Mountains, black soot from hundreds of millions of burning fires is contributing directly to glacial melt, as the soot settles onto snow and ice and warms it.

A recent study by NASA and Chinese scientists explored why temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau are rising faster and glaciers melting faster than expected. They found that rapid increases in back soot concentrations since the 1990s from surrounding countries was the culprit. In this false-color image, black carbon appears as lighter, whitish areas around the Himalayan glaciers.

Black soot surrounding the Tibetan Plateau from a NASA satellite image, Sept. 2009

Black soot surrounding the Tibetan Plateau from a NASA satellite image, Sept. 2009

NASA climate scientist and study co-author Jim Hansen said: “Continued, ‘business-as-usual’ emissions of greenhouse gases and black soot will result in the loss of most Himalayan glaciers this century, with devastating effects on fresh water supplies in dry seasons.”

Reducing black carbon would have an immediate effect because unlike CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, soot falls out within a matter of weeks. Lighten the Earth’s load on black carbon, and the benefits are immediate. Speaking of benefits, getting rid of these smoky stoves would improve the health of women and children, reducing premature deaths by about 17 percent annually, according to a November study published in The Lancet.

There’s no good reason to delay getting better stoves into the hands of the world’s poor. A lot of non-profits are already working on the matter, setting women up with $20 clean combustion stoves that improve burning efficiency. A United Nations pilot project launched in December to provide 150,000 efficient stoves to vulnerable women in Sudan and Uganda as a way to prevent the physical assault they face while collecting firewood, the idea being that less collecting is needed with more efficient stoves. The co-benefit, of course, is the climate.

But a larger scale, coordinated effort is probably required to have the kind of massive impact that’s needed. Implementing simple solutions to climate change, like cooking stoves — and not technological wizardry — seems way more sensible.

– Alison Hawkes

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