4 Million People Die Each Year Inhaling Black Carbon
One of global warming’s biggest culprits is lurking in the most unlikely of places. Black carbon from household stoves is fueling climate change and degrading public health and the issue has spurred a wave of investment in novel alternatives to solid fuel cookstoves.
Millions of women in developing countries cook on stoves heated by burning wood, charcoal, crops and dung. Soot from these stoves collects in homes and in the atmosphere as black carbon, a potent greenhouse gas second only to CO2 in its ability to trap heat. But unlike CO2, which is harmless if inhaled, black carbon contains carcinogens that can enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on vital organs.
“Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” Kirk Smith, professor of environmental health at UC Berkeley told the World Health Organization. Smoke from cookstoves claims roughly 4 million lives each year, more than malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined. Women and children stand at greatest risk.
So pernicious are black carbon’s effects that Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Capitol Hill’s most outspoken climate change doubter, supported a bill to investigate its dangers. Inhofe told the The Guardian he was concerned about the spread of lung disease in Africa, where so many families cook on wood stoves.
Inhofe’s political rivals have proved just as determined to eliminate indoor pollution from burning wood and coal. In 2010, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton announced an public-private partnership to provide clean-burning stoves to families in Africa, Asia and South America. As of October, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves had delivered 28 million stoves, a milestone on its way to its goal of 100 million stoves by 2020.
The alliance counts oil giant Shell among its key partners. To critics, Shell’s participation may look like greenwashing, a way for the fossil fuel titan to invest in clean energy without undercutting its oil business—see its sponsored article in Wired magazine or its TV commercial. But the company has contributed to grants for numerous game-changing ventures, like BioLite, a U.S. startup producing clean-burning stoves.
BioLite developed a cookstove with an attached thermo-electric generator that uses heat produced by burning wood to generate electricity. The generator powers a fan that draws oxygen into the burner, feeding the fire while eliminating smoke. The result is a cleaner, more efficient stove.
According to BioLite, the HomeStove requires roughly half the fuel of an open fire and produces 90 percent less carbon pollution. And, the extra energy produced can be used charge a cell phone or power an LED light.
Some contributions to the genre of clean cookstoves have proved less elegant. Last week, (B)energy, a German social business venture, put forward its latest design—an enormous inflatable bag that can be filled with methane from decomposing organic matter—food, manure, even human waste. Once filled, the bag can be transported on one’s back and connected to a stove to provide fuel.
Jonathan Cedar, one of BioLite’s founders, believes cleaner-burning stoves could be the next penicillin, saving millions of lives at a negligible cost. Their impact on climate change could be even bigger. Solid fuel stoves account for 25 percent of black carbon emissions globally. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for centuries, black carbon remains for just days or weeks, meaning cutting pollution from cookstoves would pay off quickly.
“Reductions in short-lived climate pollutants cannot be made in isolation from efforts to reduce other greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide,” said Sameer Akbar, a senior environmental specialist at the World Bank. “But black carbon and methane reductions can slow the warming impact in the near-term. That would buy us some much-needed time to address carbon dioxide emissions and to help communities adapt to the changing climate.”
As far as global warming goes, clean-burning cookstoves are low-hanging fruit. They are cheap, unobjectionable and able to produce immediate benefits for the climate and for human health. The challenge now is getting people to change the way they cook.
Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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