Climate change and air pollution–two sides of the same coin

A news release this week from the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the latest data show that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air.

It’s a reminder (once again) of how the fossil fuel based global economy has polluted the planet, fouled the air, sickened our children, and ruined the health of hundreds of millions of people.

An exaggeration?   Check out the numbers.

The latest estimations from the WHO reveal an alarming death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.  These deaths are caused by exposure to particulate matter (PM) pollution that is emitted mainly by vehicles and industries in urban environments.  The smallest particulates penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system and trigger strokes, heat disease, lung cancer, and a slew of other health problems, many of them fatal.

Indoors the problem is worse.  Over 3 billion people, most women and children, breathe in smoke every day from inefficient stoves burning charcoal and wood.

The real scandal is that we know how to eliminate this global health disaster, and substantially contribute to solving the global warming problem.  We can do both.  The same technologies sort out both problems.

Not so fast

Are we going to do it?  Probably not.

The urban environment is not a healthy place. Even in developed countries, the air quality is appalling. We have gotten used to it. Los Angeles, London, Paris. Everyone who lives in the city knows the feeling. Shop on Oxford street in London and after a couple of hours with the diesel taxis and buses passing two feet from the sidewalk, you have a serious headache. Nitrous oxide, black carbon, and particulates are part and parcel of urban life.

By chance, an article this week in Science News confirms that long-term exposure to traffic related pollution significantly increases the risk of asthma in children.  About 25 million Americans suffer from asthma—a disease that has been on the rise in the US since  the 1980s.

The solution to this problem is well known and it’s a work in progress—but advancing far too slowly. Electric vehicles eliminate almost all traffic-related pollution.  Although the transition is underway, in the interim, cities need stronger regulatory control over diesel vehicles, and laws that enforce more efficient transport.  According to the IEA only four countries have fuel economy standards: Japan, China, the US and Canada.

Then there’s coal. It’s a global health hazard. Renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil-fuel electricity. The market will accelerate this transition if the subsidies for fossil fuels are eliminated.  The billion dollar subsidies that keep the fossil fuels burning are a global scandal.

In the villages on islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and in the poorer towns in Africa and Asia, we know exactly how to reduce indoor air pollution from cooking.  Here, the answer may surprise the renewable energy purists. It’s liquid petroleum gas.

In Haiti, several million women cook every day on simple artisanal charcoal stoves. More efficient stoves can be purchased in the market but they cost a few dollars more.  Haiti is a poor country.

Families with more money cook with liquid petroleum gas (LPG)—widely available but unaffordable for poor families. Even though LPG, a much cleaner fuel, is cheaper than charcoal, the upfront costs are a barrier: you have to buy the stove and make a deposit on the first small cylinder of gas. Working with the private sector, a well targeted assistance program could sort out this problem within a few years. Imported Chinese two-burner stoves are cheap. Knock off the import duty and most families could buy one. Find a way to make that first cylinder of gas affordable and available. The companies that sell the LPG should do it for free.

In India, the WHO reported that in just two years a program provided about 37 million poor women with free LPG connections and helped them switch to this fuel—which enormously reduces indoor air pollution.

In Africa and Asia over a billion people still have no access to electricity. So that means lighting with kerosene (a smoky fuel), and cooking with charcoal and wood. The air quality in the homes is appalling. It’s a global disgrace.

Going solar–by phone

Once again, the solution has been in plain sight for a decade at least. Small solar panels and batteries easily provide enough lighting in the home. Even poor families can afford the panels and find a way to pay through mobile money. Just about all poor families possess a cell phone. Photovoltaic microgrids provide reliable  electricity in villages far from the grid. Smart meters monitor the system in real time, ensure that the batteries (the first bit to fail) are working correctly, and that payments are pre-paid. Tariffs for schools and clinics can be set lower.

Photovoltaic microgrids in remote villages can be managed and controlled over the internet from the nearest large city. The technology is spreading fast through East Africa—but governments need to do more. Electricity in villages is instantly catalyzes small businesses—which spring up almost overnight.

So everything connects. And first of all your phone.

Utility scale solar and wind, electric vehicles, photovoltaic minigrids and household solar panels, coupled with a global program to provide clean LPG cooking fuels to poor families, will have an enormous impact on this global health tragedy.

Cooking with gas

Is the use of LPG for cooking counterproductive in terms of global warming?

To a limited extent–but it’s not contradictory.  It’s a much better alternative than cooking with charcoal or wood. And if this global program to provide a clean cooking fuel to millions of poor families across the globe is run in parallel with the phasing out of coal, the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies, and the promotion of electric vehicles worldwide, the global impact in terms of positive health outcomes and driving down emissions of carbon dioxide and methane will be enormous.

Will it happen?  Accelerating this paradigm shift and global energy transition will take vision, leadership, and courage.

Where will we find those qualities?

For more information on energy on small islands, check it out here




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