Climate change has been on everyone’s radar of late. Statesmen, captains of industry, and celebrities have all made bold pledges to help curb emissions of fossil fuels. For the most part, the mainstream has accepted that mankind is indeed making a deleterious footprint on the environment.
In South Asia, there has been considerable debate lately about a massive brown cloud of soot, commonly called the Asian Brown Cloud (ABC), which is suspended over the subcontinent. The brown layer of haze is attributed to a host of environmental problems, including temperature changes, altered monsoon patterns and a reduction in agricultural productivity, according to a 2002 United Nations Environment Programme study. It may also cause significant respiratory problems.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It is commonly believed that changes in climate, such as ABC, are primarily caused by burning fossil fuels, a result of industrial production processes. But a recent Science paper argues that the brown haze over India is the result mainly of burning bio-mass—seemingly innocuous things such as cow dung or household waste.
Previously, researchers believed that between 50% and 90% of ABC was caused by fossil fuels. This new research indicates that 70% of the soot is the result of burning biomass.
The paper’s authors suggest that policymakers must earnestly curb biomass burning, but such an effort raises many complicated questions. How can millions of farmers be encouraged to shift away from the age-old practice of burning farm waste? How can millions of Indian households power their stoves without biomass-based fuel?
Firstly, more scholarship on biomass combustion processes and their manifestations in India is necessary. Patterns of biomass burning must first be ascertained. Uses are likely disparate and varied and would require diverse and locally specific interventions.
Secondly, the private sector should be harnessed to find viable green alternatives for biomass fuels at a local level. Indian households across diverse backgrounds use such fuels. Time and again, the private sector is most efficacious in reaching out to the most context-specific situations in India. As an externality, ABC requires partnered interventions. It is in no one’s individual interest to tackle it alone, but its ramifications seriously affect all in India.
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