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Tamminen: The Big Killer In Afghanistan

Earlier this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke about discovering that truckloads of single-use plastic shopping bags imported into his war-torn nation were squandering precious resources of fuel while risking the lives of truck drivers as they passed through insurgent held territories.

Recognizing the true cost of wasting scarce resources in a place with so few to begin with — call it the Afghan Price of goods — he led the effort to ban the use of those wasteful bags. He may want to measure the Afghan Price of a much bigger threat to his people next — the air pollution that kills more people than the war itself.

Cityscape at sunrise, Kabul, Afghanistan
Stephane Victor | Getty Images
Cityscape at sunrise, Kabul, Afghanistan

Recent studies show that some 3,000 people die every year in Afghanistan from air pollution— more than the 2,777 civilians killed in the war in 2010. Nearly half a million suffer from respiratory disease. The sources of air pollution are mainly old cars, dirty fuels, diesel generators, and the burning of trash — all of which could be eliminated using green technologies that would simultaneously boost the local economy.

Let’s start with the trash. Conversion technologies from companies like InEnTec in Oregon could turn waste into valuable commodities like electricity, fertilizers, and building materials, cutting pollution from burning trash and from diesel generators. Companies like New Planet Energyin Florida are even converting municipal solid waste into liquid fuels, which could create a cleaner burning diesel fuel and reduce costly imports.

Polluting trucks could be further cleaned up by converting food waste and used grease into biofuels. Blue Sky Bio-Fuelsis doing it in California and could certainly do it in Afghanistan. Oh sure, delivery trucks in Kabul would smell like McDonalds’ french fries all the time, but I think you only die from eating those things, not inhaling them. Farmers might also be paid to grow sustainable crops to make fuels, like Pacific Biodieselin Hawaii is doing, instead of growing poppies for the drug trade, thus solving two problems at once.

The opportunity in these ideas would not just benefit Afghanistan — it could actually become a showcase for these technologies and demonstrate to the rest of the world that the Afghan Price is not worth paying — for the economy or public health - - wherever you live or do business. The companies I mentioned are all American, so exporting these technologies could create a few jobs back in the USA too.

Whether in Afghanistan or the US, the true cost of our addiction to fossil fuels is never fully reported and certainly not paid at the pump or when we switch on the lights. The Afghan Price demonstrates that when you live in an isolated region, you quickly learn the benefit of scarce resources. In our land of plenty, those lessons are harder to visualize, but maybe by studying the struggles of an impoverished country in Central Asia, we can learn some valuable strategies for improving the global environment and economy at the same time.

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Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, and author of "Cracking The Carbon Code: The Key To Sustainable Profits In The New Economy").