For Fiji’s sake, Cut the Carbons

by Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment; Karolina Skog, Minister of Environment, Sweden; Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, Minister of the Environment, Chile - 20 November, 2017
A global burn right campaign has been launched to prevent rapid melting in arctic regions caused by black carbon from wood stoves.

As the Fijian-chaired climate talks wrapped up in Bonn, Germany, last week millions of households across the northern hemisphere are observing another annual event: the first lighting for the season of the home woodstove or boiler.

Tropical Fiji, one of the countries most threatened by sea-level rise from climate change, may seem to have little to do with woodstoves. But in reality, the simple, ancient human action of lighting a fire and the fate of the islands and other nations like it are deeply intertwined.

The problem is the release of black carbon from inefficient burning of woodstoves, as well as emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other ozone precursors and climate pollutants. These emissions are especially strong in regions near the Arctic, such as Sweden, Norway and Germany, or in other countries bracing for snow and ice, such as Chile with its high Andes. All these pollutants warm the climate, but black carbon has an impact multiplied many times. This is especially the case when it settles on snow and ice, darkening it and speeding up melting.

Even small amounts of black carbon have been shown to increase melting exponentially, as Dr. Heidi Sevestre, an Arctic glaciologist at the climate talks noted.  “We have seen that snow and ice, contaminated by black carbon levels nearly invisible to the eye, still melt much more rapidly.”

Even small amounts of black carbon, almost invisible to the human eye, can melt ice much more rapidly

And it can travel far: black carbon from woodstoves in North America has been traced to northern Canada and Greenland; and from northern Europe to the Arctic Ocean as far as the North Pole. The faster melting of glaciers and especially, the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica translate to faster and higher sea-level rise on Fiji and other low-lying nations such as Bangladesh.

Closer to home however, wood-burning has a more immediate effect on health of the immediate household as well as those living nearby. Last winter’s extreme smog events in Paris, London, Santiago and Warsaw came in large part due to household wood, or, in the case of Poland, coal stoves.

Worldwide, the WHO estimates that over 4 million people die prematurely each year from illness attributable to air pollution from heating or cooking with solid fuels, including more than 50% of premature deaths from pneumonia among children under 5.

This is because the very small particles produced by inefficient burning penetrate deep into human lungs. Other diseases associated with such exposure among older populations include stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. Poorly burning fires also lead to greater deposits of soot and creosote in the chimney, vastly increasing fire hazards.

Modern woodstoves, especially cutting-edge technologies such as pellet or reverse combustion stoves, have been measured in a recent Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) project to have very low emissions of traditional air and climate pollutants, including black carbon. If the wood fuel comes from sustainable sources, these technologies can form an important part of the transition away from fossil fuels, especially for households far from traditional energy grids. 

Support and subsidies, such as a current stove change-out program in Chile will help speed such developments.

In the meantime, however, not everyone can afford a new stove; and for these households there is a surprisingly simple solution that will even save money: lighting and burning woodstoves the right way.

“Burn Right”, a campaign being launched this week in Sweden and just wrapping up for the heating season in Chile, along with a global online campaign by the CCAC, involves following just a few simple steps. By lighting the fire from the top (or “flipping the fire upside down,” to take advantage of natural drafts), burning properly dried fuel, and in the right amounts, woodstove users can get better heat output with far less fuel and harmful emissions – by some estimates and depending on the household’s starting point, cutting emissions and fuel use in half.  Sevestre, who grew up in the Alps in a house heated by wood recently taught her own father this method.  “Small changes in our woodburning habits will go a long way for the glaciers and sea ice,” she says. 

These techniques, including a demonstration video are outlined on the CCAC web page in English, Spanish, German, French and Russian; and in Swedish on the web page

Smoke from poorly burning wood stoves both damages human health, and contributes to a warming climate, especially in the Arctic and other snow and ice regions. But by taking responsibility for how we use this resource, everyday people can contribute to an immediate and positive change for health and the climate alike. All it takes is learning a slightly new take on this ancient human activity. Your neighbors, and Fiji will thank you.