Our Dark Materials
Fire is a simple substance. Harnessed by humankind, manipulated, reshaped and tasked with a complex array of purposes. From cooking our food, starting our cars and producing electricity, fire is an essential component to sustaining life as we know it. Whether we like it or not, humans have burned our way into the future through industrial advancement and energy consumption. Yet an unintended by-product of this is a material known as black carbon, which is now doing untold damage across South Asia impacting majorly on world health and the environment.
Commonly known as soot, black carbon is the particulate matter produced from the burning of materials, whether that be from a diesel engine, a coal power plant or in the case of many homes in South Asia, a fire fueled by animal dung. As Asia’s population grows, so too, does the impact of soot on our health and environment. In India alone, over 500 million people still rely on solid fuels for basic household duties like cooking.
When inhaled, black carbon is a major contributor to respiratory illnesses that mostly affect women and children. Over 100,000 children in India die annually due to smoke-related respiratory illnesses. On a global scale, the World Health Organization estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually.
When emitted into the atmosphere black carbon particles settle and absorb large amounts of heat from the Sun due to their dark colour. This has become prevalent in the Himalayas where black carbon has deposited in the glacial region, doubling the warming impact of climate change and in turn accelerating glacier retreat. These glaciers are a crucial water source for the region that provides water for 1.4 billion people. Without these vital glaciers, the entire Asian continent will begin to face serious water security issues.
However, studies have shown that if black carbon emissions were to be controlled, global temperatures would be decreased by up to half of a degree, helping to marginally offset some of the impacts of climate change. As soot is not an overly long-lasting substance, in only a number of weeks and if we cease the burning of materials, black carbon can be naturally removed from the atmosphere and the places where it has settled. As a result, a small reduction in carbon emissions and a chance for world governments to develop strategies to deal with inevitable climate change.
Many nations have demonstrated that soot can be dealt with using existing technology, efficient design, and better access to cleaner fuels. Yet due to the sheer scale of the problem in South Asia the management of black carbon remains a difficult task, but one which is critical in some cases to personal survival. The positive benefits arising from the elimination of soot and the positive impacts to both our health and the environment are well founded, but how much more damage will need to occur for us to take a hard look at ourselves and our dark materials.