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A whiff of fresh air

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions could save at least 2 million Indian lives, in addition to preventing the ecological damages associated with a warmer planet, says a team of international researchers. AnikaGupta reports.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2009 22:58 IST
Anika Gupta

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions could save at least 2 million Indian lives, in addition to preventing the ecological damages associated with a warmer planet, says a team of international researchers. Their study is one of the first ever to look at the effects of climate change on public health.

The public health “co-benefits” of black carbon reduction are higher in India than in any other country, with the potential to save 2 million lives in just the next few years, said the authors. The study appeared Wednesday in the Lancet, a medical journal.

“Policymakers need to know that if they exert their efforts in certain directions, they can obtain public health benefits as well as climate benefits,” said Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California-Berkeley, and the principal investigator on the study. Smith said the monetary costs of reducing emissions would be more than offset by the reduction in pollution-related deaths.

The researchers found that many greenhouse gases -- in particular, ozone and black carbon, or soot -- can damage the heart and lungs. In India, most black carbon is produced by wood-burning stoves and by the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, which occurs in electricity generation and transport. The study estimates that indoor air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Researchers have long known that black carbon can damage health, but in India, recognising black carbon as a greenhouse gas — which would require emissions reduction — has been a controversial proposition.

"The numbers are staggering," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a leading climate change scientist. Ramanathan says black carbon causes up to 18 per cent of global warming, and that reducing emissions is “feasible” and will have immediate benefits. Black carbon, which accumulates on glaciers, has also been suggested as one of the key drivers of recent Himalayan glacier melt.

Much of the world’s black carbon is produced in India and China. Western nations have put pressure on India to discuss the issue at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, to take place next month. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has categorically refused, saying the scientific link is still too new.

R.K. Pachauri, head of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said last week that black carbon could not be linked to climate change -- yet. The IPCC will conclude its own black carbon study by 2013.

The Indian government recently approved its own three-year study of black carbon’s contribution to climate change.

The study will involve researchers from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), as well as leaders like Ramanathan, said Ramesh.