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indoor air pollution

Diesel: Emissions, Health, and Climate Impacts

Sameer Akbar's picture
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Trucks idling in traffic in Ghana. Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

Playing charades with my nine-year-old over the weekend, I was surprised when he gave black smoke as a clue for diesel. When I was his age, I probably would have given bus or truck as a clue.

The word diesel derives from the inventor Rudolph Diesel, who developed a heavy-duty engine in Germany in the late 1800s. Diesel fuel is any fuel used in diesel engines. The combustion of diesel fuel provides the power to move heavy-duty vehicles, such as buses and trucks. It also results in emissions of fine particles, often in the form of black smoke, along with a number of other chemical compounds.

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the emissions from diesel combustion to be carcinogenic. Last month, the WHO released data showing that more than 7 million deaths are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. The black smoke from diesel engines is a part of outdoor air pollution contributed by buses and trucks, as my son would tell me after we finished our game.

What he does not know as yet is that a study by a team of international scientists in 2013 noted that diesel smoke consists primarily of black carbon, which has a strong global warming impact on the climate; nearly 3,300 time more than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.

The one simple and clear message from the triangulation of current scientific evidence is that reducing diesel emissions provides health and climate benefits.

When Breathing Kills

Sameer Akbar's picture

 Curt Carnemark/World Bank

A good friend of mine recently returned from her mother’s funeral in Germany. She had died of lung cancer after spending the last eight years of her life in a slum in New Delhi where she taught orphaned children.

I can’t help but wonder if breathing the dirty indoor and outdoor pollution in New Delhi contributed to her cancer. My friend has the same question.

In new estimates released March 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2012, about 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution. Indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in households that cook over coal, wood and biomass stoves. Outdoor air pollution was linked to 3.7 million deaths from urban and rural sources worldwide. (As many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, mortality attributed to the two sources cannot simply be added together.)

South and East Asia had the largest number of deaths linked to indoor air pollution.

The WHO finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk. In particular, the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. In the case of both indoor and outdoor air pollution related deaths, 6 percent were attributed to cancer.

Thinking that my friend’s mother perished as result of pollution may not be so far-fetched.

Time to clear the smoke

Daniel Kammen's picture

In many parts of the world, a picture of a woman sitting in front of a smoky cookstove preparing a family meal remains an iconic picture of life today. For many families, the three- stone fire or a traditional stove as a cooking device has not changed over centuries.  This need not be the case, and in a growing number of nations, that traditional pattern is changing.

Serious research on improved cookstoves dates back to the 1950s. However, large-scale field programs focused largely on the inefficiency of designs. While the stoves may appear simple, the socio-cultural systems in which they operate, and their impacts on so many aspects of household and regional health and economics, is far from simple. Many approaches have been tried, with some successes and many failures.

Over the last few years, a more complete view of the full human and environmental health impacts of indoor air pollution and the global impact of the fuel and stove cycle has emerged. Poorly managed fuel systems encourage use of unsustainably harvested fuel such as charcoal produced from illegal and ecologically damaging informal production network.

The World Bank is looking at opportunities to improve not only cookstoves themselves, but also the full stove fuel cycle as a way to address energy poverty, human health, and the global greenhouse gas problem. I was delighted to see a new publication that looks at this nexus between health, environment and GHG benefits called Household Cookstoves, Environment, Health, and Climate Change: A New Look at an Old Problem. This report takes stock of existing knowledge on the subject and points out new opportunities by identifying `game-changers’ in the stove technology and fuels.

The revival of cookstove research

Daniel Kammen's picture

It may come as a surprise to know that half of the global population uses biomass (wood, agricultural wastes and dung) and coal for cooking.  For Sub-Saharan Africa where electrification rates outside of South Africa are only 28%, biomass and coal are the primary cooking fuels for over three fourths of the population. Combustion of unprocessed biomass fuels, especially in open or poorly ventilated stoves, emits high concentrations of pollutant mixtures – particulates, and carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide – associated with a number of respiratory and other diseases and is the leading cause of death among infants and children worldwide.

 

Since the task of cooking is mainly done by women and girls, it is they who face daily exposure to levels of pollution which are estimated to be the equivalent of consuming two packets of cigarettes a day (Kammen, 1995; Ezzati and Kammen, 2001).

 

Smoke from domestic fires kills nearly two million people each year, and sickens millions more. This places indoor air pollution as almost as critical a health threat as poor sanitation and AIDS, and a greater threat than malaria. Without systematic changes, household biomass use will result in an estimated 8.1 million Lower Respiratory Infection (LRI) deaths among young children in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, between 2000 and 2030 (Bailis, Ezzati, Kammen, 2007).

 

All of these factors highlight the critical need to evaluate the effectiveness of cookstoves at not only reducing emission, but in impacting health.