Thursday, 17 May 2007

A breath of fresh air: a business solution to Indoor Air Pollution

This weekend the United Nations’ main environmental body hit the headlines when Zimbabwe was controversially elected to its chairmanship.

Zimbabwe’s leadership of the Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) has outraged most western countries but was backed by many developing world countries.

Wrangling and bizarre (to say the least) outcomes of UN votes are nothing new. In fact, they are almost to be expected. That these organisations exist to help the world’s poor and the environment is sadly forgotten amongst the infighting and point scoring of international diplomacy.

One positive outcome, however, from the 15th session of the UNCSD was the publication of the first-ever country-by-country estimates of the impact of Indoor Air Pollution (IAP).

More than three billion people depend on solid fuels including biomass (wood, dung and residues) and coal for cooking and heating. The smoke from these stoves causes the premature deaths of more than 1.5 million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This makes IAP one of the 10 most important global threats to public health – yet its profile compared to TB, AIDS, Malaria and other killers is extremely low. This is partly because of a lack of data. These new figures are the first time individual country estimates have been published. They are therefore to be warmly welcomed.

They reveal 80% of worldwide deaths from indoor air pollution occur in just 11 countries -- Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Tanzania.

China and India lead the incidence of IAP with an estimated 400,000 people dying prematurely each year in each country. That's equivalent to two superjumbo jets a day crashing in each country and killing every passenger.

The problem is just as bad across African countries taken together with 79,000 dying in Nigeria, 56,000 in Ethiopia and 47,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. And for every death, dozens more will suffer from illnesses caused or exacerbated by IAP such as TB. That raises the number of women and children silently enduring serious health problems every day from IAP to the tens of millions and takes this into the realms of biblical plagues.

The world should pay more attention. Women should not be dying as a result of preparing meals for their families.

Most similar health scare stories from the South are accompanied by calls for massive cash donations from the North. In the case of IAP, the Shell Foundation believes instead that the best way to tackle this deadly problem is through the application of business thinking. Through our “Breathing Space” programme, we’re promoting the use of commercial product development techniques to help design stoves that get dangerous smoke and emissions out of the homes of poor people. And we’re setting up sustainable supply chains to cost effectively manufacture affordable, attractive stoves and distribute them to people’s homes in the remotest rural areas. We have a vision to sell 20 million clean stoves in five countries over the next five years and take a hundred million people out of harm’s way as far as Indoor Air Pollution is concerned. Now that will be something to make a fuss about on the global stage.

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