Scientist Behind Pioneering Black Carbon Research Receives UN ‘Champion of the Earth’ Award Tue, Sep 17, 2013

Veerabhadran Ramanathan Leading Efforts to Phase Out Polluting Cookstoves in India

Nairobi, 18 September 2013 - An atmospheric scientist whose landmark research showed that cutting emissions of 'black carbon' or soot can significantly lessen the impacts of climate change, improve the health of millions of rural poor, and avoid crop losses, has received the 2013 Champions of the Earth award; the UN 's highest environmental accolade.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan - Distinguished Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego and UNESCO Professor of Climate & Policy, TERI University, New Delhi, India - co-led an international research team that in 1997 first discovered the climate impact in Asia of widespread air pollution, known as the atmospheric brown cloud (ABC).

Further studies by Ramanathan and fellow researchers highlighted the effects of growing levels of black carbon, sulfates, ozone and other pollutants emitted by cities, industry, and agriculture - termed the 'brown cloud' - which warm the atmosphere by absorbing sunlight, and are contributing in particular to the accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers.

Brown clouds can also disturb tropical rainfall and regional circulation patterns such as the South Asian monsoon and reduce agriculture yields, potentially affecting over a billion people on the subcontinent.

Ramanathan's research underlined that cutting emissions of black carbon, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and other substances collectively known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), with life times of a decade or less, along with mitigation of CO2 emissions, can reduce the rate of warming by as much as half in the coming decades.

The Champions of the Earth prize is awarded annually to leaders from government, civil society and the private sector, whose actions have had a significant and positive impact on the environment. It is organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"I am very honoured to accept this prestigious award, which recognizes the critical role of science and research in addressing the major environmental challenges of our time," said Prof. Ramanathan.

"Policymakers across the world are realizing that through cost-effective actions such as reducing methane emissions from natural gas and oil production, and capturing from waste dumps, or phasing out products HFCs, major reductions in short-lived climate pollutants can be achieved, with significant add-on benefits for health and food security. As the science shows, fast action on black carbon, methane and HFCs - coupled with major cuts in carbon emissions - can make a critical contribution to achieving low carbon, resource-efficient, and inclusive development for all," he added.

International Response

Ramanathan has been among the most prominent scientific voices calling for collective action to cut emissions of short-lived climate pollutants to slow the pace of global warming, and achieve multi-billion dollar health benefits. 

Increasing numbers of governments are now heeding that call. Earlier this month, world leaders at the G20 summit in Moscow signed an agreement renewing commitments to reduce SLCPs, in parallel with major reductions in carbon emissions, to effectively tackle climate change.

Following its launch last year, some 60 countries and organizations have joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which aims to phase down the use of SLCPs. Ramanathan serves on the coalition's Science Advisory Panel.

"Leadership and vision will be the hallmarks of a transition to an inclusive Green Economy in developed and developing countries alike. That transition is underway and has been given fresh impetus by the outcomes of last year's Rio+20 Summit," said UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"Professor Ramanathan and his fellow 2013 Champions of the Earth winners are among those who are providing the science, actions, and policies to scale up and accelerate such transformations. As such, they are lightning rods towards a sustainable 21st Century," added Mr. Steiner.

A major UNEP study in 2011, on which Ramanathan acted as vice-chair and senior contributor, presented 16 actions to cut black carbon and methane emissions, which, if implemented, would save close to 2.5 million lives a year through reduced respiratory illnesses, avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tonnes annually, and deliver near-term climate protection of about 0.5 °C by 2050.

The report estimated that implementing these measures would help keep average global temperature rise below the internationally-agreed 2 °C target, at least until mid-century.

Ramanathan's studies on the climate warming effects of non-CO₂, pollutants dates back to 1975, when he discovered the super greenhouse effect of a class of halocarbons known as CFCs.

Cleaner Cookstoves

Ramanathan has also translated his research into action, by establishing a series of schemes, known as Project Surya, in his native country India to phase out inefficient cookstoves in collaboration with the Energy Resources Institute and Nexleaf Analytics. 

Inefficient cookstoves - used by some 500 million families in developing countries - are responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of all black carbon emissions. Some 3.1 million premature deaths (especially among women and girls) are also caused by inhalation of indoor smoke from cookstoves.

In its first phase, Project Surya used cell phone-based soot sensors to document the indoor exposure of women to black carbon from cookstoves, and demonstrated how the indoor smoke dominated outdoor concentrations of brown clouds in rural areas. Researchers also identified that improved biomass stoves using forced-draft technology drastically cut down fuel (firewood and dung) consumption and black carbon, thus reducing two major climate warming pollutants.

To date, Surya has enabled 2,000 households in three rural regions in India to switch to cleaner-burning technologies. Surya is now embarking on the second phase, in which researchers are setting up a structure for connecting tens of thousands of women with voluntary carbon markets using cell phone-based monitoring of compliance.

Surya is sponsored by UNEP, which also provided some of the funding for the initial phase of the project.

2013 Champions of the Earth Laureates

Other winners of the 2013 Champions of the Earth award include Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement; Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment, Brazil; Google Earth; Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment; Jack Dangermond, founder of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), and Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, Director of the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group in Mexico.

Ramanathan, who was nominated in the Science and Innovation category, and his fellow 2013 Champions of the Earth laureates, received his award at a special ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The event - sponsored by Guangdong Wealth - was hosted by environmental activist, supermodel and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Gisele Bündchen.

The full list of 2013 winners is as follows.


Ms. Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment, Brazil is recognized for her key role in reversing deforestation in the Amazon and her role on high-level UN panels on sustainable development., According to government figures, Brazil has cut deforestation by 84 per cent over eight years, from an annual loss of over 27,000 sq km in 2004 to around 4,500 sq km in 2012. Apart from the prevention and control of deforestation, the land use planning policies implemented by Ms. Teixeira resulted in 250,000 sq km of conservation areas - the equivalent of 75 per cent of global forest protected areas.

Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment is recognized for his work advocating a shift from the current global model of intensive resource consumption, including setting 2020 targets for the European Union to halve food waste and practically eliminate the need for landfills. His role in tackling resource inefficiencies across the food chain has contributed substantially to the ongoing UN campaign on food waste, Think.Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint.        


Brian McClendon, co-founder and VP of Google Earth is recognized for providing a powerful tool to monitor the state of the environment, allowing researchers to detect deforestation, classify land cover and estimate forest biomass and carbon and thus demonstrate the scale of problems and illustrate solutions. Google Earth, for example, was used to help rescue workers save more than 4,000 people after Hurricane Katrina and, in Australia, a scientist used the tool to discover a previously unknown coral reef in a region that had been identified for oil and gas development.

Jack Dangermond, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) is recognized for his commitment to ensuring that international, research, education, and nonprofit organizations working in the fields of conservation and development have access to the best geospatial analytical and visualization technology. In 1989, the ESRI Conservation Program was started to change the way non-profit organizations carry out conservation missions. This program provides GIS software, data, and training, and helps to coordinate multi-organizational efforts


Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD was recognized for his pioneering work on black carbon, which included leading a team that first discovered widespread Atmospheric Brown Clouds (ABCs) and research into how cutting black carbon can significantly mitigate climate change. Dr. Ramanathan showed that ABCs led to large-scale dimming, decreased monsoon rainfall and rice harvest in India and played a dominant role in the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. A member of the Science Advisory Panel on the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, he is now running Project Surya, which aims at reducing soot emissions from bio-fuel cooking in rural India.


Carlo Petrini, Founder of the Slow Food movement is recognized for his visionary work to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the world's agriculture and food supply "one bite at a time". Slow Food has over 100,00 members and supporters in over 150 countries, defending local food traditions, protecting local biodiversity and promoting small-scale quality products. Petrini is also a coordinator of National and International level research projects in the bioethical field. In 2012, Petrini was invited to speak at the Sustainable Development Dialogue on Food and Nutrition Security at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, Director of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda is recognized for her work in the Sierra Gorda region of Central Mexico, which demonstrates how a broad range of advocacy, public education and income-generation approaches, can produce support healthy ecosystems and alleviate poverty. She was responsible for achieving Biosphere Reserve status for Sierra Gorda under an innovative public-private system. Through her work and advocacy, 33 per cent of the State of Querétaro is now protected as a Biosphere Reserve. Hundreds of families in Sierra Gorda now receive a total of over US$2 million from the sale of carbon credits.

Notes to Editors

About Champions of the Earth

Champions of the Earth, which was launched in 2005, is the UN's flagship environmental award. To date, it has recognized 59 individuals and organizations for their leadership, vision, inspiration and action on the environment. The list of previous Champions laureates include Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Chinese actress and environmental advocate Zhou Xun, the Women's Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) and global music legend Angélique Kidjo.

Visit for more details.

About Guangdong Wealth, Sponsor of the Champions of the Earth Awards

Guangdong Wealth Environmental Protection is a leading supplier of water purifying products and water treatment integrated solutions in China. The company practices a business model that puts social welfare before economic interests, using the concept "let the sky be bluer and the water clearer". The company invests in environmental scholarships for young university students, organizes clean-up operations, and donates tonnes of purifying tablets to tackle pollution in rivers in Guangdong and Beijing.

For more information, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Director of Communications and Spokesperson, Tel: +254 733 632755 or +41 795965737 (Roaming), Email:

NY: James Sniffen, UNEP New York Office, Tel. +1-212 963 8094/8210 or Tel. +1-917-742 2281, Email:

Bryan Coll, UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi), on Tel. +254 20 762 3088 / +254 731 666 214 or e-mail

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