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
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,
'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
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
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
'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
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].'
Story by NISSARA HORAYANGURA