by Stephen Leahy
Rebecca Arrieta Vermeer often woke up choking on the smoke from the open-wood fires as her neighoursprepared their early morning meals in Dumaguete City, Philippines. This is what more than half of the world's population experiences every day since they rely on dung, wood, crop wastes, charcoal for cooking and heating.
Most of this burning is done indoors where few have chimneys, including the 30 to 40 poor families that surrounded the house Vermeer, now a resident of North Saanich BC, inherited.
"At first I was angry but then I saw the children," says Vermeer, who spends half of the year returning home to the Philippines, following her retirement as economist and policy advisor in the BC public service. Many children had dripping noses and were wheezing with congested lungs. Some had asthma.
“That's when I decided to do something to help,” she said and remarkably went on to invent a locally-made, high-efficiency cooking stove called the eco-KALAN and "magic box" slow cooker.
Indoor air pollution can be far worse than outdoor pollution especially in poorly ventilated buildings. Every year indoor air pollution is responsible for the death of 1.6 million people – that's one death every 20 seconds – reports the World Health Organization.
In a vicious cycle, poor families can't afford cleaner fuels or stoves or lanterns, which then impacts their health, making them less able to earn money and having to spend precious dollars on medicines.
Worse, if possible, is that the soot from this inefficient burning of biomass for cooking and heating is responsible for 20 to 30 per cent of current overall global warming. Yes, that's right, nearly a third. Soot or black carbon warms the planet in two ways. In the lower atmosphere the dark particles absorb heat from the sun and act like an extra blanket, raising surface temperatures. In cold regions the soot coats snow and ice, turning it grey and reducing the albedo – the ability to reflect sunlight. When the snow and ice is darker, it soaks up more heat from the sun, which accelerates melting.
A study released in April confirms that black carbon is responsible for much of the early spring snow and ice melt in the Earth’s ‘third polar region,’ the 1.6 million square kilometre area in Asia comprising the Himalayas–Hindu Kush and nearby mountains along with the high-elevation Tibetan Plateau. The meltdown there is happening at twice the rate as in North America. “By inducing early retreat of snow cover, black carbon causes (Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau) land areas to absorb more sunlight and warm disproportionately,” reports Mark Flanner of the University of Michigan and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Roughly 35 per cent of all black carbon comes from Asia, the source of the infamous brown cloud of pollution that crosses the Pacific and contaminates air in western North America. Eliminating black carbon emissions from biomass burning and from burning diesel fuel (the other major source of black carbon) could increase the spring time snow cover in Asia substantially, recovering perhaps 25 percent of what has been lost in the past 100 years, Flanner said.
Flanner and other experts agree that black carbon is also responsible for much of the rapid meltdown currently underway in the Arctic.
Unlike carbon dioxide that stays in the atmosphere for centuries, soot only remains in the air for weeks or months. And there are easy, quick fixes for soot: filters on diesel engines and high-efficiency stoves like Vermeer's eco-KALAN.
There are lots of well-designed stoves available but to keep the costs down the eco-KALAN is made by local potters from clay found around the small city of Dumaguete, at the southern tip of the Philippine's Negros Island. Vermeer collaborated with Nate Johnson and Mark Bryden of Iowa State University and Sebastian Africano of Trees Water and People and the Aprovecho Research Center to make a high-efficiency version of the traditional kalan (stove). The eco-KALAN has an outer shell (kalan) on which the cooking pot sits; the inner chamber (rocket elbow) where the combustion takes place; and a shelf with air holes to hold the fuel.
“The improved version of the eco-KALAN now uses 80 per cent less fuel than the traditional kalan,” says Vermeer. It can burn wood, twigs, branches, charcoal, bamboo, and any part of the coconut tree such as stems, husks, shells, and leaves. The stove is sold at a subsidized price of C$8.00. “The pay-back is just one month in savings on purchasing fuelwood,” she says.
In very poor mountain communities or slums where people earn less than $2 a day and spend all of that on food, the eco-KALANs are given away using her pension money and donations from individuals in Canada and Europe. The total cost of production, transportation, education and training, event documentation, and refreshments for a presentation to the community amounts to roughly $18 to $20 per eco-KALAN, she says.
Lower cooking costs are just one benefit. The eco-KALAN also results in cleaner air, less respiratory disease for local people, and it reduces deforestation pressures. It also means less black carbon in the atmosphere.
To further reduce the need for firewood, Nate Johnson, an engineering student, built an insulated box out of discarded packing materials and some aluminium foil where a pot can continue cooking for two or three hours without any additional heat. “People can't believe it's still cooking without fire. That's why they call it the magic box.”
Officially called the eco-Magic Box, local trade schools are beginning to manufacture and sell the boxes, she says.
“The [high-efficiency stove] is the fastest ‘bang for the buck’ to reduce black carbon, methane and other gas emissions as well as improving air quality and health,” says Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at the University of California and a leading expert on indoor air quality.
But Smith has struggled for 20 years to find the money to put these stoves into the homes of an estimated 500 million poor families that need them. Health or development agencies in rich countries say they don't have the money, or they want solid proof that such stoves will save lives, Smith says.
Meanwhile dozens of non-governmental organizations from public service groups like the Rotary Club, church and environmental groups, and individuals like Rebecca Arrieta Vermeer recognize an obvious solution when they see one and cobble together money, bringing tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of stoves to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.
Sadly, the public in rich countries like Canada allow their governments to ignore this easy solution to boost global health, reduce deforestation and slow climate change. In a typical example, Canada's federal government and Alberta will spend $1.6 billion of public money on an untested technology called carbon capture and storage to combat climate change. In reality this is a gift to highly profitable energy companies to help them deal with their pollution problem, if the technology even works. Instead, that $1.6 billion could buy 60 to 80 million stoves, improving the health and lives of hundreds of millions and do far more to combat global warming than any single effort to date.
Vermeer says giving away her stoves is the best thing she's ever done.
“This is a good way to end our lives, doing something that we're so happy to be involved in.”
“I wish others could experience this.”
Stephen Leahy is an environmental journalist based in Oxbridge Ontario.