Fix the simple things first ~ Abaster

23 April 2009

Fix the simple things first

Global climate change is a "wicked problem" - convoluted, interconnected, complex and dynamic. It appears to be an unsurmountable challenge. Yet sometimes it pays to start with the simple things first: affecting change through addressing low-hanging fruit may be a way to show progress in this intractable challenge. Black soot is one of those low-hanging fruit. The NYTimes carried an excellent article recently on the impact of wood stoves in the developing world on climate change. And not only is it an environmental issue, but it is also a pressing health issue:

"Doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries. The combination of health and environmental benefits means that reducing soot provides a “very big bang for your buck,” said Erika Rosenthal, a senior lawyer at Earth Justice, a Washington organization. “Now it’s in everybody’s self-interest to deal with things like cookstoves — not just because hundreds of thousands of women and children far away are dying prematurely.”

Research in 2006 suggested that "burning firewood -- the principal fuel for cook stoves in the developing world -- produces 800,000 metric tons of soot worldwide each year. In comparison, diesel cars and trucks generate about 890,000 metric tons of soot annually. These two sources each account for about 10 percent of the soot emitted into the world's atmosphere each year..."

According to the NYTimes article, a bill in the US Congress would authorize the US EPA to provide aid for the deployment of 20 million new stoves. Good new for the likes of Project Surya which is one of a number of parties urging basic change in India and elsewhere. Good news also for innovations in this space, such as the Chulha stove and the Kenya Ceramic Jiko portable stove.

To bring about change one has to look at the fundamentals - and sometimes they are so basic, so ordinary, so everyday, that we fail to see them. Affecting small changes in human behavior and practices and enabling simple innovations in product, service or organizational design can bring about a substantial impact. Treaties and other global mechanisms must be accompanied by a more systematic approach to addressing environmental challenges at the local, national and regional levels, otherwise commitments agreed to at the international level will be for naught. Encouraging cleaner, healthier cooking is a case in point - a small and mundane step in the scheme of things perhaps, but one that results in substantive change nevertheless.