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Black carbon and the kerosene lamp

The stifling effect of kerosene light dependency has been on our radar for some time now. As you may have heard us utter once or twice in the past, kerosene used for lighting alone can eat up to 20% of a household’s income and emits harmful fumes – the equivalent of around 40 cigarettes per day.

However, what has only just come to light is the substantial impact that kerosene lamps have on climate change. These lamps emit a disproportionate amount of black carbon – which is essentially soot released in to the atmosphere through incomplete combustion. This traps heat and diminishes the amount of sunlight reflected back in to the atmosphere.

Black carbon is known to be a far more powerful absorber of sunlight than CO2.


Black carbon is known to be a very powerful absorber of sunlight, far more so than carbon dioxide, and behind CO2 is the biggest contributor to global warming. One kilogram of black carbon produces as much atmospheric warming in a month as 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide does over 100 years.

The environmental and scientific community have long been aware of the atmospheric warming effect of black carbon. However, the story of the kerosene lamp and black carbon is only now beginning to unravel.

By comparison, it is thought that a striking 7-9% of kerosene lamp emissions are black carbon compared to around 0.001% in a diesel engine.  Whilst this sounds like a figure worthy of pricking the ears of ardent environmental scientists – due to the relatively small amount of fuel used in the lamps, many researchers overlooked its contribution to climate change.

However, when you consider that globally there are around 1.3 billion people without access to clean electricity and in Africa, for example, lighting demands account for around 30% of kerosene consumption – we begin to gauge an idea of their impact.

These issues have been highlighted in a recent study: Household light makes global heat: high black carbon emissions from kerosene wick lamps. 

The lead author of the study, Nicholas Lam stated: “Getting rid of kerosene lamps may seem like a small inconsequential step to take, but when considering the collective impact of hundreds of millions of households, it’s a simple move that affects the planet”.
What’s more, black carbon particles only stay in the atmosphere for a short period of time meaning that eradicating the kerosene lamp would be a hard and fast way to mitigate climate change. While this would obviously not halt climate change in its tracks, it would certainly play a part in the solution.

Black carbon particles stay in the atmosphere for only a short period of time. Eradicating the kerosene lamp is a hard and fast way to mitigate climate change.

As another author of the report, Kirk R. Smith, says: “There are no magic bullets that will solve all of our greenhouse gas problems, but replacing kerosene lamps is a low-hanging fruit. We don’t have many examples of that in the climate world.” Smith was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2007 for his work on climate change.

There are other more prolific emitters of black carbon – namely solid fossil fuels used for cooking and diesel engines. However, none of them have such a readily available and preferable solution knocking at their door. We have the technology and the know-how to eliminate this source of climate change – and SolarAid is determined to do it by 2020.

By replacing the kerosene lamp with solar there are also immediate localised environmental benefits. These include preventing detrimental changes to monsoon rain patterns and reducing levels of indoor air pollution – a major factor in deadly respiratory diseases.

Solar lamps provide many benefits for rural off-grid communities, reducing black carbon is just one of them. Find out more.


Further information on the issue of Black Carbon and kerosene lamps.

Jacobson Bond et al: Black Carbon and Kerosene Lighting pdf


Original academic sources

  • Lam, N. L., Chen, Y., Weyant, C., Venkataraman, C., Sadavarte, P., Johnson, M. A., … & Bond, T. C. (2012a). Household light makes global heat: high black carbon
  • Jacobson, Lam, Bond and Hultman 2013: Black Carbon and Kerosene Lighting: An Opportunity for Rapid Action on Climate