The plot thickens

Winter haze caused by thermal plants, not biomass burning

Published: Saturday 15 April 2006

-- CHULAS are not the primary suspects, chimneys are. A new study has found that it is not the 'inefficient' stoves millions of the rural poor use but badly-managed thermal power stations in the Indo-Gangetic belt that are chiefly responsible for the thick haze that envelops us in winter months.

Scientists participating in a five-year-long United National Environment Programme-sponsored Indian Ocean Experiment (ended in 2002) had chanced upon a three-kilometre thick smog layer formed of airborne particles and pollutants such as carbon soot over much of South Asia and China. The Asian Brown Cloud, as it was named, became the focus of controversy with countries like India objecting to the name. It was re-christened Atmospheric Brown Cloud.

Using remote-sensing data available over the thermal plants, the researchers show that much of the carbon soot, nitrates and other pollutants in the region come from them. They say these units have no option but to use low-grade coal as much of the Indian coal reserves are of poor quality. Most of them lack adequate pollution control measures. Also, adding to the problem is the noxious smoke gushing forth from thousands of brick kilns. The scientists reckon there are nearly 90 thermal plants -- all of over 100 mw capacity -- in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Besides, there are a number of smaller capacity plants that should have been decommissioned decades ago.

The study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, now shows that the poor who use biomass as fuels are not the villains, but the victims. The dense haze diminishes the amount of sunlight over the Indian landmass by about 10 per cent, directly affecting agriculture, the mainstay of their income. Besides, the haze that hangs close to earth's surface during much of its existence compromises their health too. Putting the blame on excessive fuelwood burning belies logic, even otherwise. While the haze has thickened over the years, the use of firewood has drastically come down. Available data indicate in the decade ending 2000 that biomass burning was about 10 per cent less than the previous one.

Isn't it time for climate pundits to set the record straight, rather than putting the blame for all that goes wrong with the earth's atmosphere on the poor?

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