How to slash global warming AND save 1.6 million lives a year

by | May 21, 2009

A while back, David did a post extolling the virtues of biochar as a potentially important – but widely overlooked – element of the response to climate change. Well, here’s another: black carbon.

As Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development notes, black carbon is “the dark soot that comes from old diesel vehicles and burning biomass for cooking”. It accelerates global warming in two crucial ways: first, by absorbing more heat while particles of it float around in the atmosphere, and second by darkening snow and ice surfaces after it falls to the ground, thereby absorbing still more heat.

It’s a big deal.  One recent study cited by Zaelke suggests it’s responsible for 50% of Arctic warming; another that it reduces springtime Eurasian snow cover by as much as CO2 does.  Black carbon’s also a major part of the recent why the MIT study published 2 days ago is so gloomy (it predicts “a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees” – great).

The good news?  This is eminently tackle-able, especially through pretty basic technologies like better cooking stoves and smoke hoods. More good news?  Undertaking a major push on this would not only deliver immediate progress on reducing climate change, but would also save millions of lives and make a tangible difference to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. 

As Practical Action (one of the best NGOs in this area) summarise, more than a third of humanity (2.4 billion people) use biomass as their main cooking fuel, of whom 800m depend exclusively on crop residues and dung. Smoke in the home from these fires kills 1.6 million people a year – mainly women and kids. That’s more than malaria, and almost as much as poor water and sanitation. This WHO graph shows worldwide causes of death and illness:

While this one shows causes of death among under-fives:

So sorting out such stoves is one of those rare things, a genuine win-win. It’s also something the development community could actually deliver.  As a rule I’m sceptical when I see the aid world cheerfully adopting a throw-money-at-it approach – but one area where resource transfer can clearly achieve results is when (a) it’s geared towards getting stuff distributed, and (b) the stuff in question doesn’t depend on complex delivery systems (such as a functioning health sector).  In those conditions, donors can be extremely effective: look at distribution of bed-nets to combat malaria.

So: someone needs to initiate a major push on universal access to basic stoves and safe cooking technology.  But who has the standing to unite the climate world and the development world in this endeavour, and could also bring it to G8 or G20 summits for high level political cover? 

Sounds like a job for the SG to me.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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