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Indian Scientist Behind Pioneering Black Carbon Research
To Be Conferred UN ‘Champion Of The Earth’ Award

By Prof. Nagarathinam& Marianne de Nazareth

17 September, 2013

Nina Davuluri has become the first Indian American to become Miss America 2014 and create massive waves of excitement across the world. Similarly, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a distinguished Indian Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who is leading efforts to phase out polluting cookstoves in India, is the second Indian to hit the headlines in New York. An atmospheric scientist whose landmark research showed that cutting emissions of ‘black carbon’ or soot can significantly lessen the impacts of climate change, improve the health of millions of rural poor, and avoid crop losses. Ramanathan is to receive a 2013 Champions of the Earth award; the UN ’s highest environmental award in New York.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan is a distinguished Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego and UNESCO Professor of Climate & Policy, TERI University, New Delhi, India. He co-led an international research team that in 1997 first discovered the climate impact in Asia of widespread air pollution, known as the atmospheric brown cloud (ABC).

Further studies by Ramanathan and fellow researchers highlighted the effects of growing levels of black carbon, sulfates, ozone and other pollutants emitted by cities, industry, and agriculture, termed the ‘brown cloud,’ which warm the atmosphere by absorbing sunlight, and are contributing in particular to the accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers.

Brown clouds can also disturb tropical rainfall and regional circulation patterns such as the South Asian monsoon and reduce agriculture yields, potentially affecting over a billion people who live on the subcontinent.

Ramanathan’s research underlined that cutting emissions of black carbon, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and other substances collectively known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), with life times of a decade or less, along with mitigation of CO2 emissions, can reduce the rate of warming by as much as half in the coming decades.

Cleaner Cookstoves 

Ramanathan has also translated his research into action, by establishing a series of schemes, known as Project Surya, in his native country India to phase out inefficient cookstoves in collaboration with the Energy Resources Institute and Nexleaf Analytics.   

Inefficient cookstoves, used by some 500 million families in developing countries, are responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of all black carbon emissions. Some 3.1 million premature deaths, especially among women and girls, are also caused by inhalation of indoor smoke from cookstoves. 

In its first phase, Project Surya used cell phone-based soot sensors to document the indoor exposure of women to black carbon from cookstoves, and demonstrated how the indoor smoke dominated outdoor concentrations of brown clouds in rural areas. Researchers also identified that improved biomass stoves using forced-draft technology drastically cut down fuel (firewood and dung) consumption and black carbon, thus reducing two major climate warming pollutants. 

To date, Surya has enabled 2,000 households in three rural regions in India to switch to cleaner-burning technologies. Surya is now embarking on the second phase, in which researchers are setting up a structure for connecting tens of thousands of women with voluntary carbon markets, using cell phone-based monitoring of compliance.  Surya is sponsored by UNEP, which also provided some of the funding for the initial phase of the project

The Champions of the Earth prize

The Champions of the Earth prize is awarded annually to leaders from government, civil society and the private sector, whose actions have had a significant and positive impact on the environment. It is organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“I am very honoured to accept this prestigious award, which recognizes the critical role of science and research in addressing the major environmental challenges of our time,” said Prof. Ramanathan.

“Policymakers across the world are realizing that through cost-effective actions such as reducing methane emissions from natural gas and oil production, and capturing from waste dumps, or phasing out products HFCs, major reductions in short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) can be achieved, with significant add-on benefits for health and food security. As the science shows, fast action on black carbon, methane and HFCs – coupled with major cuts in carbon emissions – can make a critical contribution to achieving low carbon, resource-efficient, and inclusive development for all,” he added.

International Response

Ramanathan has been among the most prominent scientific voices calling for collective action to cut emissions of short-lived climate pollutants to slow the pace of global warming, and achieve multi-billion dollar health benefits.  

Increasing numbers of governments are now heeding that call. Earlier this month, world leaders at the G20 summit in Moscow signed an agreement renewing commitments to reduce SLCPs, in parallel with major reductions in carbon emissions, to effectively tackle climate change.

Following its launch last year, some 60 countries and organizations have joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which aims to phase down the use of SLCPs. Ramanathan serves on the coalition’s Science Advisory Panel.

 “Leadership and vision will be the hallmarks of a transition to an inclusive Green Economy in developed and developing countries alike. That transition is underway and has been given fresh impetus by the outcomes of last year’s Rio+20 Summit,” said UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Professor Ramanathan and his fellow 2013 Champions of the Earth winners are among those who are providing the science, actions, and policies to scale up and accelerate such transformations. As such, they are lightning rods towards a sustainable 21st Century,” added Mr. Steiner.

A major UNEP study in 2011, on which Ramanathan acted as vice-chair and senior contributor, presented 16 actions to cut black carbon and methane emissions, which, if implemented, would save close to 2.5 million lives a year through reduced respiratory illnesses, avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tonnes annually, and deliver near-term climate protection of about 0.5 °C by 2050.

The report estimated that implementing these measures would help keep average global temperature rise below the internationally-agreed 2 °C target, at least until mid-century.

Ramanathan’s studies on the climate warming effects of non-CO2, pollutants dates back to 1975, when he discovered the super greenhouse effect of a class of halocarbons known as CFCs.

Professor Nagarathinam (Department of Communication, Madurai Kamaraj University, India) and Marianne de Nazareth(St. Joseph’s PG College of Media Studies and COMMITS, Bangalore, India)


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