The need to curb black carbon emissions

GS Paper III

News Excerpt: 

At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021, India pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. Black Carbon emission mitigation strategies will yield benefits in the long term; they need to go hand in hand with efforts that provide short-term relief.

What is Black Carbon?

  • Black carbon, commonly known as soot, is a component of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5). It is formed by the incomplete combustion of wood and fossil fuels, creating carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. 
  • Black carbon warms the atmosphere because it is very effective at absorbing light
    • It exacerbates the warming of the air and surfaces in regions where it is concentrated, altering weather patterns and ecosystem cycles.
  • Black carbon lasts only days to weeks in the atmosphere but has significant direct and indirect impacts on the climate, snow and ice, agriculture, and human health.

Sources of black carbon:

  • Black carbon is produced through both natural and anthropogenic sources.
    • However, the proliferation of industrial activity over the last two centuries has prompted a sharp increase in black carbon concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere today. 
  • It is created through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and gas and biofuels such as wood, peat crops, and other fuel sources.
  • Some of the biggest sources of black carbon emissions include diesel engines in vehicles, cooking stoves, wood-burning furnaces and forest fires. 

Sectors contributing to black carbon emissions:

  • The chief culprit for black carbon emissions can vary from region to region around the globe. 
    • For example, the transportation industry is by far the largest emitter in the developed world (including North America and Europe),
    • Residential combustion of coal and biofuel accounts for a much bigger share of emissions in the developing world (including Asia and Africa).
  • In India:
    • The residential sector contributes 47% of India’s total black carbon emissions. Industries contribute 22%, diesel vehicles 17%, open-burning 12%, and other sources 2%.
    • Decarbonisation efforts in the industry and transport sectors in the past decade have yielded reductions in black carbon emissions, 
      • However, the residential sector remains a challenge.

 Why is it harmful for the environment?

  • Firstly, black carbon particles become suspended in the air and absorb the heat emitted by the sun’s rays due to their dark colouring. 
    • This contributes to a warming of the ambient temperature. 
  • Secondly, they can settle on the snow and ice in Arctic regions and reduce the ability of those surfaces to reflect the sun’s energy away from them.
    • This increases the rate at which they become heated and melt, contributing to the loss of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and potentially irreversible consequences of climate change.
  • Other, more indirect effects black carbon can have on the environment include altering regional weather patterns, inhibiting or encouraging cloud formation, and detrimentally impacting plant health and productivity.

Effectiveness of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY):

  • The PMUY would provide free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to households below the poverty line.
  • The primary objective was to make clean cooking fuel available to rural and poor households and reduce their dependence on traditional cooking fuels. 
  • The PMUY has established infrastructure for LPG connections, including free gas stoves, deposits for LPG cylinders, and a distribution network. 
  • It has played a vital role in reducing black carbon emissions. It offers a cleaner alternative to traditional fuel consumption. 
  • The programme has provided connections to over 10 crore households as of January 2024.

Challenges associated with the scheme:

  • 25% of all PMUY beneficiaries — 2.69 crore people — availed of either zero LPG refill or only one LPG refill, according to RTI data, meaning they still relied entirely on traditional biomass for cooking.
  • The average PMUY beneficiary household consumes only 3.5 - 4 LPG cylinders per year instead of the six or seven a regular non-PMUY household uses. 
    • This means that up to half of a PMUY beneficiary household's energy needs are still met by traditional fuels, which have high black carbon emissions.
  • A shortage of LPG and higher usage of traditional fuels also affect women and children disproportionately.
    • They are more prone to higher levels of indoor air pollution, which can cause many health issues and lead to premature deaths.
  • Another challenge is the lack of last-mile connectivity in the LPG distribution network, resulting in remote rural areas depending mostly on biomass. 

Role of the government:

  • The government has implemented subsidies to make clean fuels like LPG more affordable for rural households. 
    • The government allocates significant funds for subsidies and programs like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), indicating its commitment to providing clean cooking fuels to rural households. 
      • This financial support is crucial for ensuring affordability and accessibility.
  •  The Prime Minister announced a further reduction in LPG prices to make it more accessible for rural communities. 
    • These initiatives aim to make clean fuels a viable option compared to traditional alternatives like cow dung and firewood.

Way forward:

  • Addressing last-mile connectivity issues in the LPG distribution network is essential. 
    • The government must invest in infrastructure development to ensure clean fuels efficiently reach remote rural areas.
  • One potential solution is the local production of compressed biomethane (CBM) gas by composting biomass.
    • CBM is a much cleaner fuel with lower black carbon emissions and investment.
    • Panchayats can take the initiative to produce CBM gas locally at the village level, ensuring every rural household can access clean cooking fuel.
  • As India navigates its global responsibilities regarding long-term decarbonisation, action is urgently needed.
    • Prioritizing black carbon reduction through initiatives such as the PMUY scheme can help India become a global leader in addressing regional health concerns.
      • It helps meet its Sustainability Development Goal of providing affordable, clean energy to everyone and contributing to global climate mitigation.

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