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How now, Brown Cloud?

By Darryl D'Monte

In 1991, India dismissed the Asian Brown Cloud theory as “unfounded”. Environmentalists termed it a ploy to distract attention from the contribution of rich countries to climate change. Today, most people accept that there is indeed a pall of “black carbon” hanging over Asia, the result mainly of millions of wood stoves burning in South Asia and China. What do we do about it?

Asian Brown Cloud

Evidence of an Asian Brown Cloud -- a term that atmospheric scientists and climate change policy negotiators do not like -- is growing by the day. Only recently, The New York Times carried a long article where the writer visited a poor village in “central India”, accompanied by Dr Veerbhadran Ramanathan, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego.  

The cloud is a pall of dusty smog hanging over Asia, more particularly China and India. It is caused mainly by millions of poor villagers who cook with wood and coal. This is why such pollution is so widespread. It is said to cause as much as 18% of global warming, almost one-fifth of the world’s total; that’s less than half that generated by carbon dioxide, which accounts for 40%. But it lies at the very heart of the big divide in the climate change debate. As Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi, pointed out as early as 1991, in a path-breaking book titled Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism, it is unfair to equate the “luxury” emissions of industrial countries that have far exceeded their consumption of fossil fuels and have caused global warming, with the “survival” emissions of the poor. 

When the ABC (Asian Brown Cloud) first surfaced in a report by the UN Environment Programme in 1991, before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, 10 years after the Earth Summit in Rio, the Indian government took strong exception to the theory. The environment ministry stated that the report’s conclusions were “unfounded”, and there was no scientific evidence to suggest any link between the haze and its impact on weather patterns, floods and drought, precipitation, crop yields, acid rain, and pollution-related mortality. The ministry said that the alarming picture of the brown haze painted by the UNEP report was based on preliminary limited modelling findings founded on several assumptions and studies from which no definite conclusions could be drawn. Besides, the ministry stressed, the haze was not specific to the Asian region but was also seen over Europe, North America and East Asia.

The ministry added that the report’s drastic conclusions about disruption of weather patterns and massive monsoons, floods and drought caused by the cloud were “unfounded” as they focused only on the winter season over South Asia. “The results of the report and the experiments cannot be applied to other seasons,” the ministry said.

Commentators, including this writer, could not but be wary of the timing of the report’s release which, they suspected, was meant to put a cat among the pigeons and distract attention away from the need, in Johannesburg in 2002, to blame rich countries fairly and squarely for climate change.

Faced with criticism at the time from India and other countries, the UNEP and its head Klaus Toepfer admitted that more research was needed, but pointed to the alarming “pollution parcel” over Asia. It was too much of a hot potato then to be taken on board, and was, for political or diplomatic reasons, put on the back burner.

With a sense of déjà vu, it would be tempting for analysts in India to be similarly suspicious of the timing of current reports since 2007 from US atmospheric scientists: could this be a run-up to the major negotiations that will be taking place over the next few months when the Kyoto Protocol is re-negotiated in Copenhagen this December?

It does now appear that we in this country were mistaken, and that there is indeed a pall of dust, or “black carbon”, hanging over Asia.

Poor women cook on wood stoves throughout South Asia and China, among other Asian countries, and these two most populous nations rely mainly on coal to generate power. There could be a genuine debate on the extent of the contribution of such “survival” emissions as compared to those of the “luxury” variety. But there is no question that pollutants travel far and wide in the atmosphere. Researchers have found dust from mines being operated during the Roman Empire trapped in the polar ice caps (which are themselves in danger today due to climate change).

India’s inefficient and dirty wood stoves account for as many as 400,000 deaths a year, which should be cause for alarm nationally. Sunita Narain, who now heads the CSE, said six years ago: “I first learnt that smoke from chulhas was deadly when Kirk Smith, then a professor at the East-West Centre in Hawaii (now at Berkeley), visited our office in the early-1980s. He came with a hand-held smoke monitor and told us how monitoring kitchen smoke in Gujarat villages had revealed that women were exposed to total suspended particulates of about 7,000 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/cum) in each cooking period (compare this to annual standards for outdoor air at 140 µg/cum). Worse, how exposure to benzo(a)pyrene -- the carcinogen in cigarette smoke, also found in biomass smoke -- was equivalent to smoking 10 packets of cigarettes a day.”

Narain cited WHO estimates that there were over 1.6 million premature deaths each year from cooking stove pollution. Some 400,000-550,000 women and children under five die prematurely every year in India because of this deadly smoke and, according to Smith, this was a conservative estimate. She added: “He estimates that lost health life years (calculated as disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs) could range from 12-17 million each year. Sick days could cross over 2 billion each year. The burden of disease from cooking stoves comes right after dirty water and lack of sanitation.”

In the quarter of a century since Smith conducted his studies in Gujarat on chulhas in poor villages, nothing much has changed for all the posturing by India and China at climate change negotiations. In Bonn this March, at the UN conference of governments on climate change in the prelude to Copenhagen, both Surya P Sethi, chief energy policy advisor to the Indian government, and Shyam Saran, the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change, referred to how some 700 million people in the country -- much more than one in every two Indians -- have to eke out a subsistence without using commercial energy, depending on biomass (wood, twigs, straw and other farm waste) to cook.

Surya told reporters that “India was low in the human development report due to its low energy consumption”. One could connect energy use with each UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG), the deadline for which is 2015. He called for a minimum “entitlement” of 30 kWh (units) of electricity per month and six kilos of cooking gas per person, as the basic minimum for human existence. “This lies at the core of gender inequality,” he added, “since the girl-child inhales cooking emissions and this leads to poor female health and high mortality.” As it is, he noted, India accounts for a third of the world’s poor, measured by the $1, $1.25 or $2 per day threshold -- more than the total number of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Saran opposed attempts by the US and Europe in these climate negotiations to get “more advanced developing countries” -- a category which doesn’t exist in the Kyoto lexicon -- to take on commitments to lower their greenhouse gas emissions, by pointing out that although India was the third largest emitter in the world it only accounted for 4% of the total, while China and the US were responsible for 20-25%. Sethi cited how the Stockholm Environment Institute had come up with a more realistic assessment of each country’s commitments, which showed that India “was not hiding behind its poor,” based on capita consumption and “historical responsibility” (emissions over some 250 years of industrial growth) -- incidentally, both formulations were first enunciated by Anil Agarwal in 1991. 

Saran asserted that if one took 1990 as the base year, India’s contribution to global warming was only 0.3%, even after accounting for 30-40 million middle class consumers in the country. China accounted for 3.5% while the US was 36% and the EU 25%. This very clearly underlines the polemics of the climate change debate, which is where the ABC figures. It is in both India’s and the world’s interest to curb smoke emissions from faulty wood stoves. But then, who will bear the cost?

India’s efforts at introducing “smokeless” chulhas, even experimenting with solar cookers, have by and large proved ineffective. For three reasons. First, there is little or no maintenance and no one to repair the improved models: there may be an exact parallel when it comes to building public toilets, which soon fall into disuse if there is no one to keep them clean. Secondly, certain cuisines -- like the phulkas of north India and other food varieties -- either require intense heat or women are accustomed to the smoky taste or aroma of the food and are reluctant to switch to other methods of cooking. And lastly, well-meaning NGOs that have tried to usher in the new stoves aren’t sufficiently familiar with the customs and surroundings of the villages in which they operate.

But here’s the thing. This very problem -- the ABC and all the climate phenomena it encompasses -– could actually turn into an opportunity to address the North-South divide at these negotiations. The US in particular is keen to fund technology transfer rather than hand out sums of money to the South for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Couldn’t the provision of technologies which would provide a sustainable means of cooking and lighting for the poorest of the poor bridge this gap?

At Bonn, the South called for a relaxation of intellectual property rights on such technologies. The G77 and others asked for exemptions from patents for climate-related know-how, and India, specifically, advocated a “restructuring of the global intellectual property rights regime”. It also proposed establishing a network of R&D centres as part of technology cooperation with the UN climate change secretariat. Dr Ajay Mathur, who heads the government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency in Delhi, cited how a LED (light-emitting diode) lamp made by Crompton Greaves in Pune, using Dutch know-how and Indian fabrication, was much less energy intensive than even compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), but cost Rs 1,200 each.

This is prohibitive at the moment, but it is a question of scale. When the first CFLs came on the Indian market they cost Rs 1,000 each. The price has progressively declined over the years. If there was a carbon market, the cost of the switch over to LED bulbs could be financed by industrial countries buying certified emission reduction certificates from companies that marketed these bulbs. This would not only reduce the carbon dioxide emissions generated by using coal to fire power plants but, locally, reduce carbon particulates in the atmosphere caused by millions of people using kerosene for lighting. If all of India switched over to these bulbs, for the sake of argument, it would amount to 56 billion units of electricity saved, or the reduction of 44 million tonnes of carbon dioxide -- the equivalent of planting 140 million trees.

In much the same way, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and sponsors are propagating solar-powered lanterns and torches which will at least provide minimal lighting at night, under the ‘Lighting a Billion Lives’ global campaign. Initially, TERI is targeting some 80 million households in India.

At Bonn, the G77 and China called for industrial countries to spend between 0.5% and 1% of their GDP to combating climate change, which would amount to something in the range of $100 billion a year.

As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column, such expenditure amounts to “an affordable salvation”. In the build-up to re-negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen this December, the US administration -- which has returned to the table after eight long lonely years in the “Bush” -- is pressing for a “cap and trade” policy in that country, which would require companies which exceed their emissions to buy credits to offset them. The Emission Prediction and Policy Analysis Group at MIT states that even with stringent curbs on emissions, Americans would have to only consume 2% less in 2050 -- the midway deadline that many countries are eyeing, after 2020 -- than they would have in the absence of emission limits. Krugman writes: “That would still leave room for a large rise in the standard of living, shaving only one-20th of a percentage point off the average annual growth rate.”

George Bush once said, notoriously, that when it came to climate change, American lifestyles were not negotiable, implying that their consumption needs came first. President Obama has put paid to all such self-serving partisanship. Whether the ABC can set a good precedent for bridging the North-South divide in the environment/development debate, the next six weeks of actual negotiations before Copenhagen will tell.

South Asia, in numbers, not only has the largest number of the world’s poor but will be worst affected, again in terms of overall numbers, by climate change. This is because around 600 million people in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh depend on the melting snows of the Himalayas to feed their rivers, while a third or so of Bangladeshis live in low-lying coastal areas and will have to be evacuated when ocean levels rise.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009