Fighting 'poor people's pollution'

Bangkok Post, Outlook - Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Nobel Prize laureate for chemistry Paul J. Crutzen urges countries to work together to improve air quality
Walking the streets of the City of Angels, one cannot avoid inhaling 'Eau de Bangkok' _ an inimitable mixture of car exhaust, soot and dirt. Although not the city's most welcoming feature, the smog-filled air attests to the highly pressing nature of the subject of Nobel Laureate for Chemistry Professor Paul J. Crutzen's recent speeches at Chulalongkorn University and other venues in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen. An expert on the earth's climate, the ozone layer and environmental consequences of nuclear war, Prof Crutzen spoke on 'Air Pollution in Asia and its Impact on Regional and Global Climate'.

His speeches were the fourth programme in a series of lectures to promote global understanding entitled 'Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' hosted by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.

Prof Crutzen was one of the first scientists to identify tropical biomass burning as a major source of air pollution with serious repercussions for climate, human health and vegetation. He has previously served as director of research at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and has received numerous awards, including the Global Ozone Award from UNEP.

According to Prof Crutzen, the current outlook for climate changes in the future is disturbing. Illustrating his point with an array of alarming graphs, he explained that it is projected that by the end of this century, global temperature will rise by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius, a large increase in a relatively short amount of time.

The most severe temperature increase will occur at high latitudes, but this will still have serious effects on places at lower latitudes like Thailand. If the temperature rises in polar regions, ice caps and masses like Greenland may melt, causing sea levels to rise which will hit low-lying areas at all latitudes.

This drastic climate change corresponds directly with human activity. Temperatures had been constant up to the year 1800, about the time of the industrial revolution, after which temperatures sharply increased. To underscore the destructive effects of humans, Crutzen coined his own term: 'I call the period we are living in the 'Anthropocene' because in this era, the earth has been dramatically changed by humans.'

Clearly the air _ which is no longer so clear_ has been drastically altered. In Asia, the problem of air pollution from industrial fuel burning and diesel exhaust is quite well known. Perhaps less well known, but a huge source of air pollution in the tropics, is biomass burning. In the dry season, farmers burn their fields, releasing polluting gases that are sometimes even greater than industrial pollution. Prof Crutzen calls it 'the poor people's pollution'.

In order to reduce their air pollution, Prof Crutzen believes Asian countries cannot decrease their fossil fuel burning much because they are using relatively little as it is compared to industrialised countries. Reflecting a liberal viewpoint, Prof Crutzen declared that, 'Developing countries should have a chance to develop and raise their standards of living, which will unavoidably involve burning fossil fuels.' However, the level of pollution can be minimised, so industrial nations should help developing countries by bringing to them better, less polluting means of production.

While the reduction of fossil fuel usage possibly may be limited, Asian countries can try to reduce black carbon output from use of diesel fuel and lessen biomass burning. Farmers can find ways to integrate straw into the soil, rather than burning it. This requires the work of soil scientists. Prof Crutzen demurred from going into greater detail, however.

'It is better for local scientists to do work in this area and educate people on how to change their behaviour.'

Indeed, Prof Crutzen stressed the importance of raising awareness, which he views as more effective than simply making it illegal to burn biomass. The local people need to be educated about the causes and effects of pollution, and the alternative practices they can adopt.

He also emphasised the need for greater research. In his view, the climate in Asia and tropical areas was not being studied enough. 'We still lack basic chemical data regarding Asia. I greatly encourage universities, including those here in Thailand, to do more study in this field.'

It will be important to better understand Asia's climate because, as Prof Crutzen asserts, 'Asia is where most of the world's population lives so Asia is crucial to what happens to global climate in the future.'

Considering the politics of pollution and global climate change _ whose responsibility it is to sacrifice for the common future, the Nobel laureate is quick to point out that he is not here to blame anyone for polluting.

'Our air pollution adds up. It's not a question of whether I am bad or you are bad. We are all bad. So we should work together to improve the situation.'

Pollution not only adds up, it moves. Transported by winds, pollution in one part of the world, like what is called the Asian Brown Cloud, migrates to other parts as well. It is thus in the interest of industrialised countries to provide technology to help developing countries to reduce pollution, for in doing so rich countries are also ultimately helping themselves.

Given the innately global nature of environmental problems, what is the relationship between environmental issues and efforts to build peace? Prof Crutzen defines it with a scientists's precision.

'There is a direct relation between a good environment and peace. The fewer natural resources we have, the more people will fight over [them]. Right now, mankind is actually attacking the environment. We are fighting a war against the environment.'

And yet the affable professor maintains an air of optimism.

'I am sometimes a pessimist, but when I think of my grandchildren, I think I have to try to be an optimist. I think ultimately people will behave intelligently. Maybe we don't have to continue on this path we are on. Maybe we can change the [temperature projections].'