The Need to Mobilize Farmers to Fight Climate Change
This guest post is by Michael Davidson, a Fulbright Fellow with the BP-Tsinghua Clean Energy Research and Education Centre in Beijing in 2008-2009. His research interests took him from the very big (renewable energy policy) to the very small (household biogas systems) in the quest to understand China’s sustainable development. Michael majored in physics and Japanese at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
Pictured right: The next climate defender standing over his biogas digester in rural Yunnan.
The agricultural powerhouse of China try as it might cannot escape its past: with 60% of its population living in rural areas and maintaining food self-sufficiency a well-established national directive, the “sea” of farming and pastoral land will not be overshadowed by the rapidly industrializing urban “islands” it surrounds in the foreseeable future. Indeed, given China’s majority rural demographics, it is no wonder the Central Government is taking land and water resource access in the impoverished West seriously – lest there be rioting farmers on top of everything else for the CCP to worry about. Because the coming climate crisis will disproportionately affect the rural economy, namely through its impact on land and water,
It is important to remind ourselves of the rural dimension of what is going on at Copenhagen.
Traditionally, arable land has been threatened by over-grazing, excessive fertilizer use and encroaching urban centers. Water resources have been polluted with industrial and agricultural run-off, diverted to cities and threatened by non-existent waste management services in villages. Add to this mix desertification, drought and unseasonable flooding due to climate changes, and the backbone of a robust farming state seems less able to withstand the stresses.
In response to this, China’s environmental protection has been beefed up by the addition of a new ministry and pro-active measures towards emissions intensity targets and handling conventional pollutants. These have not been followed, however, by an increase in funding and manpower for solving rural environmental issues – in a system not designed for distributed, low-level populations and pollution sources deficiencies abound (see this outline of rural pollution factors – Chinese only). A report earlier this year then made the important link between rural poverty and deteriorating environment in China.
Leading up to Copenhagen, one issue that was on everyone’s mind was what would happen to all the CDM projects post-Kyoto. The issue heated up between Brazil and Saudi Arabia over deforestation versus carbon-capture and sequestration, and there are ripples in China after the additionality rug was pulled out beneath several wind farm projects. Tasked with finding an appropriate funds transfer mechanism from rich to poor countries within or without CDM, negotiators at the Copenhagen conference on climate change must indeed realize that while it was a milestone by introducing market-based ideas, CDM has a lot of drawbacks.
Of those I would like to point out its smoking everywhere electronic cigarettes inapplicability to small-scale applications of renewable energy and hence its disregard for a large potential market. One need look no further than rural Yunnan province to see how big this potential is: every year the province has a target of installing 200,000 new household biogas digesters. According to a calculation I performed for improvements in manure management and clean energy for cooking, one year’s worth of digesters can over their lifetimes prevent 16 Mt of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. However, the current government program is plagued with inefficiency, inadequacy and insufficient funding to educate users properly as to the environmental imperatives and their rights involved, and to establish a reliable maintenance system that assures these installations will not cease to produce clean energy and become a burden on farmers.
Some have sought private funding models to expand and improve coverage of biogas based on carbon offsets – Friends of the Earth won the Ashden Award for its work and CatchCH4 though in its infancy deals with the comprehensive nature of maintenance and verification – but it is time we get international systems on board.
Programmatic CDM (also, Programme of Activities, abbreviated PoA) could be the answer. It is still uncertain, having officially commenced this June and only two approved projects to date, but basically it rolls many small-scale projects into one design document overcoming the traditional budget-bursting hurdle for these underfinanced solutions. Turning everyone’s head is the possibility (though it has yet to be tested) of registering geographically and methodologically diverse programs – that is, small solar in Vietnam could be combined with small wind in China. Additionality is also easier to prove when we move into the village because traditional low-income lifestyles lead to static baseline scenarios. Difficulties have arisen, of course, in exactly how to reconcile multiple methodologies into one program – especially regarding validation – and even if one could organize geographically diverse projects, the coordination and management costs (especially with multiple stakeholders involved) may be prohibitory. For a more thorough exposition of all the challenges and benefits see the PoA CDM Manual for Mini Biogas (pdf).
Across the tables of COP15 sums of hundreds of billions of dollars per year aid to developing countries are being tossed around, but where will that money go? Hidden from view of downtown Copenhagen are the billions of rural people around the globe who have little say in combating what may be the single most devastating effect on their livelihoods in the next half-century. After spending time with many Chinese farmers and herders, I am confident that a small investment now in education programs followed by funding for clean energy – we are not talking about high price-tag, closely-held proprietary technologies, but inexpensive yet life-changing energy systems plus capacity-building – can have a remarkable impact on mitigating climate change and its disastrous consequences, namely, poverty.
Related Post: “Pig Power—Rural development through biogas digesters“