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Avoidable Pollution

It is not often you come across what looks like a simple solution to a big problem, but in this programme on air pollutants, that’s what we seem to have done. The World Health Organisation claims that each year around 1.3 million people die because of outdoor air pollution. Another two million suffer premature deaths as a result of air pollutants in their own homes.

Much pollution comes from large industry but it is wrong to think of that as the whole picture. For over 30 years, Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Director of the Centre for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, has been conducting ground-breaking research into air pollution. Professor Ramanathan has been working on what are called atmospheric brown clouds or ABCs.

What I found most striking about his work is that it is not just about traditional pollutants coming from big chimneys in big factories. This is often about just small families cooking on open stoves or trying to heat their homes in a very small and what would look like a rather benign, ecological way. He says that much of the avoidable pollution is happening at the scale of an individual house. People burn firewood, cow dung, or whatever they can get their hands on. “That’s roughly 3 billion people in the world who are too poor to access fossil fuels. And you think it’s just one small person burning one little piece of wood, but when you realise there are hundreds of millions of such homes burning it becomes a huge continental scale problem,” he says.

Some months after recording my interview with the professor, I was sitting with an environmental charity in London talking of large scale projects to help cut pollution. Almost as an aside, I was told, the best thing we could do is just give everyone in the developing world a more efficient wood burner. Interestingly that is exactly what the professor is doing with a pilot project in India.

My colleague Rajini Vadyanathan went to the village of Palwal, about two hours drive from Delhi, to see how a piece of new technology, called the Biolite stove, could revolutionise the problem. Inside the stove there is a fan which forces oxygen onto the flame and eliminates the smoke. The second difference is that the stove also generates electricity from the heat of the flame. Thermal electric generators have been around for a long time but never before have they been applied to a cook stove. They use the differential in temperature between the heat inside the flame and the cold air outside the flame and that differential creates electricity through a semi-conductor. It is not cheap and costs around $40, but the company making the stove hope they can convince villagers that the innovation is not just an environmentally beneficial product but one which makes economic sense for them as well. It creates roughly two watts of power in one day’s cooking. That is enough power to fully charge a mobile phone and provide an evening’s worth of light.

Although still in the testing stage, six thousand stoves have now been deployed across India and Africa as part of large scale field trials taking place over the next twelve months. In a world dominated by environmental warnings, the good news here is that air particles do not stay in the air for more than a week or two. So if we stopped emitting them tomorrow then in a couple of months the problem will disappear of its own accord.

Professor Ramanathan says: “I think the key thing to know is my optimism comes from scientific facts. The other beauty of this beast, (the) air pollution beast, is that individual actions can help.”

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