The United Nations on Wednesday presented Indian scientist Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan the UN Champion of the Earth award at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
A distinguished professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, Ramanathan was recognised in the Science and Innovation category of the awards for his pioneering research on black carbon – a type of short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) that can be reduced to slow the rate of global warming.
Ramanathan is one of seven laureates for this year’s Champion of the Earth awards, the highest United Nations honour on the environment.
Started in 2005, the prize is organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and given to leaders and organisations that have had a significant impact on the environment, particularly in policy leadership, entrepreneurial vision, inspiration and action, and science and innovation.
The ‘black carbon’ or soot research of Ramanathan, who is also a UNESCO professor of climate and policy at TERI University in New Delhi, began long before global warming was understood.
According to a 2005 article on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), his study during the late 1970s on the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) “opened a Pandora’s Box of greenhouses gases”.
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
Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan
“It made the whole greenhouse effect and global warming problem much larger and more urgent,” Ramanathan told PNAS.
In addition, the UN cited a research study Ramanathan co-led in 1997 that resulted in the discovery of climate impact in Asia due to widespread air pollution, or what is referred to as atmospheric brown cloud (ABC).
This ‘brown cloud’ is a combination of black carbon, ozone, sulfates and other pollutants caused by agriculture, industries and cities. It not only affects the atmosphere by absorbing sunlight, but also disrupts monsoon patterns and tropical rainfall, which lessens crop yields that more than a billion people in India depend upon.
The research also raised concern on the increased melting of Himalayan glaciers.
Ramanathan’s study discovered that black carbon, methane, hydrofluorocarbons and the like are short-lived climate pollutants, lasting only for ten years or less, making emissions reduction more encouraging.
By eliminating these substances, along with carbon dioxide emissions, the rate of warming can be cut down in half in the succeeding decades, explained the UN.
The climate science professor added: “Policymakers across the world are realising 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 can be achieved, with significant add-on benefits for health and food security.”
For example, a UNEP study in 2011, in which Ramanathan was involved in as senior contributor and vice-chair, outlined 16 actions to reduce black carbon and methane emissions, that if applied, could reduce respiratory illnesses and save up to 2.5 million lives per year. It could also save agricultural losses amounting to 32 million tonnes annually, as well as bring about near-term climate protection of about 0.5 °C by 2050.
“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,” said Ramanathan.
To complement his research, he implemented Project Surya in India, a programme to remove inefficient cookstoves in partnership with the Energy Resources Institute and mobile technologies firm Nexleaf Analytics.
According to the UN, about 500 million families in developing nations use such cookstoves, which produce around 25 per cent of all black carbon emissions. Aside from being harmful ecologically, the primitive cookstoves cause about 3.1 million fatalities, especially among women and girls, who are exposed to inhaling the black carbon-laced smoke.
Project Surya is now replacing these biofuel-using, polluting cookstoves with clean-cooking technologies. This will eliminate climate change culprits such as firewood and dung and convert rural communities to use renewable energy instead.
Surya, which is ‘sun’ in Sanskrit, has currently provided 2,000 households in three provincial areas with energy efficient or solar cookstoves. To scale up the efforts, the group has also started to bring in carbon markets into the programme by revising how carbon credits are calculated. Instead of simply counting carbon dioxide emissions in a reduction or climate mitigation project, Project Surya is looking into having SLCPs calculated as well, through the use of cell phone-based monitoring, which will raise up the credits that could then be traded to directly finance the women’s or benificiaries’ purchase of better stoves. Project Surya intends to increase the adoption of cleaner cooking technologies with this carbon credit strategy.
Along with Dr Ramanathan, the following are the rest of the 2013 Champion of the Earth awardees:
- Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, Italy (Inspiration and Action)
- Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, director of the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, Mexico (Inspiration and Action)
- HE Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment, Brazil (Policy Leadership)
- HE Janez Potoènik, European Commissioner for the Environment, Slovenia (Policy Leadership)
- Brian McClendon, Google Earth, USA (Entrepreneurial Vision)
- Jack Dangermond, founder of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, USA (Entrepreneurial Vision)
UNEP executive director Achim Steiner commended all the environmental champions for their leadership and vision. This will help the world “transition to an inclusive green economy”, he said.
“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,” Steiner added.