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Every autumn, swaths of Northern India are obscured by smoke so thick and sprawling it’s visible from space. The clouds spew from 92 million tonnes of agricultural waste burned annually when farmers set their fields ablaze to rapidly clear debris from the summer’s rice crops to make way for wheat crops. A toxic cocktail of pollutants rolls across the region, creating calamitous health and environmental effects.
In the first week of November, flights were diverted from the capital Delhi because of low visibility due to air pollution; several thousand primary schools were closed, and people were advised to wear anti-pollution masks and avoid going outdoors. Delhi’s air pollution is fourteen times greater than the World Health Organization’s limits making it among the most polluted cities globally. By some estimates, half of the air pollution this time of year is caused by these fires.
Open burning is also the world’s largest source of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant that lasts for a few days to weeks but has a warming impact 460-1,500 times stronger than carbon dioxide. It’s a primary component of the kind of fine particulate matter air pollution seen in Delhi, which globally is responsible for an estimated 7 million premature deaths annually.
It has a lesser-known but no less pernicious effect, however. Black carbon is also blanketing the glaciers in the Himalayas––the colossal mountain range that contains Mount Everest and runs through Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan––and causing them to melt faster, with likely disastrous consequences for the almost 2 billion people that rely on them for water.
Luckily, there are effective alternatives to open burning. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to eliminating open burning, including educating farmers and helping them access alternatives, monitoring fires and tracking their impact using satellites, helping turn agricultural stubble from waste into a resource, and supporting policy interventions such as regulating burning or giving farmers subsidies for better equipment. It’s a steep challenge but the payoff could be vast: in addition to helping stop glacial melt, ending open burning worldwide could save a staggering 190,000 lives every year.
The complexity and urgency of the problem means that the CCAC is supporting work that tackles the problem from a variety of angles.
“Once a mindset is settled that it is easier and quicker to manage the rice straw by burning it, it becomes very difficult to change. It requires constant effort, we have to push the farmers from all sides and create awareness and social pressure using all of the avenues we can, including radio and television,” said Dr. Ravinder Dhaliwal, who, along with her husband Dr. Harjit Singh Dhaliwal run the Punjab Agricultural Management and Extension Training Institute (PAMETI) and are the CCAC’s partners on the ground.
They’re working to develop networks of farmers who commit to not burning as well as identifying community leaders to trial no-burn alternatives.
“These demonstrations are important because seeing is believing,” she says of farmers who agree to pilot other methods. “Whatever was settled in their minds gets slowly eroded and gradually replaced by other alternatives.”
One of them is called the Happy Seeder, an attachment that latches onto the back of a tractor and shreds the agricultural waste, redistributing it as mulch while at the same time planting seeds for a new crop.
“If we’re looking to stop this immediately, it’s much more effective to start with the farmers and their needs,” said Pam Pearson, the Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) of why it’s important to focus on direct benefits to the farmers, as well as longer term climate benefits of eliminating open burning.
The environmental benefits are indeed vast, especially when its effects on the nearby Himalayas is taken into account. If global warming is kept under 1.5 degrees Celsius––a goal that can only reached by massively reducing carbon dioxide and short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon––a new report found that the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan would still experience 2.1 degrees warming, causing one-third of the glaciers to melt. If current emissions aren’t stemmed, the region could warm five degrees and lose two-thirds of its glaciers by the end of the century. Half of the inhabitants of this region already face some form of malnutrition and many of the people relying on the major rivers it feeds, including the Ganges and the Mekong, are already living on the knife edge of survival.
Many of these farmers, however, are also struggling to survive which means that alternatives must take the immediate needs into account. Critically, the Happy Seeder has the potential to boost farmer profits by 20 percent while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78 percent.
Burning decreases the soil fertility by 25 to 30 percent and reduces its ability to retain water, forcing farmers to spend money on expensive fertilizers and irrigation systems. Mulch from the Happy Seeder, on the other hand, increases soil fertility and makes the soil more resistant to droughts and floods––critical as the effects of climate change become more acute.
“The farmers are saving on gas, they’re saving on fertilizer, and they’re getting equal or higher yields, so they really like this alternative,” said Pearson.
PAMETI found that the yield of wheat sown with the Happy Seeder remained on par with the yield of wheat sown via conventional tillage during the first three years of use and then increased by 10% after that.
Still, the machines are expensive in the short term––which is why the continued support of the CCAC, other organizations, and of course government schemes, is so important.
Another CCAC partner working on solutions to the problem is IKEA, the Swedish furniture company that joined the Coalition this year.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for all of us to breathe this air on a day to day basis and, more importantly, it affects our children and we need to take as stand on it,” said Akanksha Deo, a Designer at IKEA in India.
The company launched the ‘Better Air Now’ initiative to collect rice straw from farmers in India and turn it into product material for its FÖRÄNDRING collection, which will be in IKEA stores in 2020.
“Rice is a fabulous material, I’m amazed by how versatile it is. You can twist it, mold it, fold it, dye it, and then make pulp out of it,” said Deo. “It’s a beautiful example of how we can turn waste into resource.”
Rice straw can also be used as animal feed or bedding, both interventions the Dhaliwals are working on with farmers. Another way to turn it into a resource is converting it to biomass energy, typically by creating pellets that can be used for heating and cooking. While used widely around the world, there may or may not be a market in this region. To find out, the CCAC is supporting the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and partners in carrying out a feasibility study for the region to help determine what infrastructure is needed to make it viable in the state of Punjab.
Given how many potential solutions there are––and how critical success is––the CCAC is also supporting work to map all fires and the resulting black carbon emissions, both historically and in the future, using satellites to determine whether or not these interventions are working.
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