Industrial soot emissions – also known as black carbon emissions – is a major air pollutant and the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. The soot collects on Artic Ice, for example, decreasing the earth’s ability to reflect the sun’s rays.
According to a recent NASA study, South Asia has the highest soot emissions in the world and most of this is emitted by the 150,000 plus brick kilns in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Brick making process in the region is stuck in an ancient process, says the report. Workers toil in furnace like conditions enduring back-breaking labour in an environment that has blackened skies due to smoke emissions. The soot belched from these coal-powered kilns is one of the major sources of the toxic soup of pollutants that has given many South Asian cities the unwanted accolade of having among the worst air quality in the world.
Following the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has identified an opportunity to rebuild the industry. The ICIMOD launched the ‘Brick Kiln Initiative’ which found a way to redesign the ovens and stack the bricks differently in brick kilns so that less toxic soot is produced. “We wanted to do three things: decrease emissions, increase efficiency and make the kilns earthquake-resistant,” said Bidya Banmali Pradhan, programme coordinator for the initiative.
By stacking the bricks inside the kilns in a zig-zag pattern, the heat snakes through the gaps more efficiently, ensuring coal is completely burned so less soot is produced. The process cuts emissions by 60 percent. But more importantly for the kiln owners, it nearly halves coal consumption. “The environmental factor does not necessarily motivate most kiln owners, but the zig-zag method has an economic benefit. We are using less coal and getting better bricks faster,” said Mahendra Chitrakar, president of the Federation of Nepal Brick Industries.
Most of the 100 brick kilns in the Kathmandu valley have already adopted the new technology, according to Chitrakar. “We had to rebuild, so we thought why not build a more scientific, environmentally friendly structure,” said brick kiln owner Raj Kumar Lakhemaru. “Now there is no black smoke. The bricks are better and I am spending a lot less on coal.”
The next step is to spread the technology. Brick manufacturers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan met in Kathmandu this year to discuss the new design. However, activists say that the brick industry has to be cleaned of not only environmental impacts but also from a human perspective. There are more than 200,000 kiln workers in Nepal and 16 percent of them are children, a report from Better Brick Nepal said.