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World Nature Conservation Day: a Reason to Celebrate Fossil Fuels

Today is World Nature Conservation Day (WNCD), “observed on 28th July all over the world with the objective of increasing awareness about and protecting the natural resources that the Earth is bestowed with,” enthuses a website called Sustainability Initiatives.

Having never heard of WNCD until this morning, I had to wonder whether the event has even less cultural cachet than the unplug protest called Earth Hour. So I checked the home pages of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, and Sierra Club. No mention of WNCD.

I might have gone through life oblivious of WNCD had a colleague not sent me this item: “World Conservation Day: Five things India is doing to protect its resources.” The five initiatives are creating green spaces in cities, improving waste management, protecting tigers, restoring mangroves, and conserving wetlands. Worthy goals, no doubt. The article credits one initiative with increasing the tiger population from 1,710 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014, and another with expanding mangroves by more than 100 sq kms. Impressive.

Alas, not all “green” initiatives in India promote “sustainability.” Phys.Org reports that a carbon-credit financed “clean cook stove initiative” in southern India “fails to deliver benefits in the field.” Let’s first look at the broader context, then the specifics reported in the article.

Biggest Environmental Killer

When most Americans hear the words “air pollution,” they think of emissions that damage air quality outdoors. In fact, as Danish researcher Bjorn Lomborg points out, the “world’s biggest environmental killer” is indoor air pollution:

More than one third of the world’s population—2.9 billion people—still burns wood, charcoal and dung indoors to keep warm and cook food. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.3 million people in 2012 lost their lives due to indoor air pollution. . . . Estimates from the WHO and others suggest that between 30 and 150 times more people are killed due to indoor air pollution than global warming. 

Moreover, WHO’s climate change-mortality estimates are at best inflated and at worst sheer flights of fancy. But let that pass.

The surefire way to solve indoor air pollution is to replace traditional fuel sources with modern, grid-connected commercial energy. But many climate activists argue that developing countries should avoid “our mistakes” (i.e., reliance on fossil fuels), and use small-scale “clean” technologies as a bridge to the renewable energy future.

Failure 

Researchers from Canada, the United States, and India measured the indoor air quality impacts of providing modern “clean cook stoves” to families in southern India. The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism payed for the devices. Results? “Actual indoor concentrations measured in the field were only moderately lower for the new stoves than for traditional stoves, according to a paper published in June in Environmental Science & Technology,” Phys.Org reports. The article continues:

Additionally, 40 percent of families who used a more efficient wood stove as part of the intervention also elected to continue using traditional stoves, which they preferred for making staple dishes such as roti bread. That duplication erased many of the hoped-for efficiency and pollution improvements.

Nor did the more efficient cook stoves help protect the forests by reducing fuelwood consumption:

Laboratory studies suggested that the more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves could reduce a family's fuelwood consumption by up to 67 percent, thereby reducing household air pollution and deforestation. In practice, there was no statistically significant difference in fuel consumption between families who used the new stoves and families who continued to cook over open fires or traditional stoves.

It gets even stranger. Indoor air pollution got worse:

Across all households, average indoor concentrations of particulate matter, an unhealthy component of cooking smoke that can contribute to lung and heart disease, increased after the intervention stoves were introduced—likely because of seasonal weather patterns or food rituals that required more cooking.

The median increase, however, was smaller in homes where families exclusively used intervention stoves—51 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to 92 micrograms per cubic meter for families who used both intervention and traditional stoves and 139 micrograms per cubic meter for the control group of families who continued cooking on a traditional stove.

For perspective, the U.S. EPA deems outdoor air to be unhealthy if annual average concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exceed 12 micrograms per cubic meter, or if daily concentrations exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

The researchers also measured cook stove emissions of black carbon, a solar energy-absorbing warming agent that darkens and melts Arctic ice. The “clean” cook stoves “increased the proportion of that pollutant in the smoke.”

Fossil Fuels Beat ‘Clean’ Cook Stoves

The figure below is by University of Alabama in Huntsville atmospheric scientist John Christy, who taught math and science as an African missionary. The “energy system” shown in the slide is the fuel poverty that imperils the large segment of humanity still dependent on traditional biomass for heating and cooking.

Increased access to grid-based coal and gas would have several environmental and health benefits, Christy observes. Indoor air quality and health would improve. Women and children, who spend much of their time gathering and hauling wood, would be able to engage in less onerous and more fulfilling pursuits. Food would be easier and safer to prepare. There would be electric light for reading and study at night, information via television, radio, and the Internet, and “the forest with its beautiful ecosystem would be saved.”

As noted previously on this blog, if we assume the validity of “consensus” climatology, limiting global warming to under 2°C will require developing countries to make deep cuts in their current consumption of fossil fuels. Sadly, that would neither improve human health nor help conserve biodiversity. Quite the reverse.