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"Clearing the Air: Reducing Black Carbon Worldwide"


Date: July 17, 2009

"Clearing the Air: Reducing Black Carbon Worldwide"

We call it "soot," but it is officially known as "black carbon." Soot is the fine, black residue that can be found inside our fireplaces and on the outside our car's tailpipe. It is emitted from dirty diesel engines and is even produced during forest fires. Though, on the surface, it might appear to be little more than a dirty nuisance, the truth is black carbon is a potent contributor to global climate change and a health risk. And a major source of black carbon are the primitive cook stoves used in developing countries.

While carbon dioxide is known to be the most common cause of rising global temperatures, scientists say black carbon is the second. It is estimated to have, on an equivalent mass basis, more than 500 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. That's because when black carbon falls on ice or snow, it reduces the reflectivity, therefore increasing the rate of melting.

While global climate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges facing our country, black carbon is also a dangerous pollutant that is causing severe health problems, even death, worldwide. In developing countries like Africa, China, and India, about two billion people cook with solid fuels over an open fire or with primitive mud stoves. Cooking and heating with poorly designed stoves emits noxious gases and particulates. This soot gathers not only on the walls and the roof of their small huts, but also in their lungs. Tragically, experts believe that these pollutants cause the premature deaths of more than one million people, particularly women and children, each year.

More than half of the controllable black carbon emissions in the world are due to these cooking practices. There is a real need to find alternatives to these poorly performing stoves to improve global environmental and human health. That is why I, along with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, recently introduced bipartisan legislation to authorize the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to conduct a pilot program to develop and test stoves that optimize both fuel efficiency and black carbon reduction.

Our legislation addresses in a practical, low-tech, inexpensive way a serious threat to the Earth, global climate change, as well as a public health problem that is currently harming people in developing nations. Replacing these open fires and mud stoves with modern alternatives could be an inexpensive way to rein in global warming and improve the quality of life for all.