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. Read the full story
A guest post by Heather Chi on the promise (and potential perils) of small-scale organic agriculture in China.
Given the urgent need to reform China’s agriculture and food production infrastructure in the context of rising concerns about the country’s ability to feed its growing population, the need to ensure food safety for locally grown and exported produce, as well as the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, promoting small-scale agriculture emerges as a viable option that China’s policymakers should seriously consider.
Firstly, small-scale agriculture has significant potential to lift China’s struggling rural farmers out of poverty. A recent study on fruit farmers in Shandong reveals that at least a number of small and poor farmers have been able to access traditional marketing channels despite the rise of larger industrial farms that are increasingly integrating these supply chains. This is largely on account of the observation that a majority of transactions between buyers and producers are conducted in cash and done on a spot-market basis, rather than by supply contracts. This suggests that increased financial and technological support for small, rural Chinese farmers could be a significant contributor towards boosting rural incomes and narrowing the income gap between traditional and industrial agriculture. Read the full story
There are perhaps 40 different eco-city projects across China at the moment. If you had to design your own city, what would its infrastructure look like? Are cities, per se, even the right form of settlement for eco-planners to design? Here, The Green Leap Forward takes a look at several ideas in eco-community design, inspired by visits to several proposed eco-city sites in China last year, several presentations at a recent conference at the National University of Singapore, and the writings of Brian Milani.
Unified Infrastructure: Using Systems Thinking to Build Communities
If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate Read the full story
Nuclear is Hot. Big 5 power company China Huaneng Group has signed contracts with suppliers to equip its first nuclear power plant in Shandong province. The plant, planned for 200 MW in its first phase with a 2013 start date, will boast “high temperature, gas-cooled technology” (HTR-PM), which is supposed to be safer and simpler in design compared to conventional nuclear plants. It is the smallest of 21 plants in China’s nuclear pipeline. For the tech geeks our there, Tsinghua University, one of the purported suppliers of nuclear equipment for the project, has put out a paper describing HTR-PM. A review of China’s nuclear sector is really overdue here at The Green Leap Forward. Watch for it.
Solar-Powered Water. The Xinjiang government has invested RMB 160 million ($23.5 million USD) in a drip irrigation system powered by solar panels. [Pictured: a picture of a generic drip irrigator stolen from the interweb]. Elsewhere, China Solar & Clean Energy Solutions has been awarded a US$3.5 million solar water heating project in Shenzhen. Separately, the Beijing government announced it will invest RMB 13 billion (US$1.9 billion) over the next three years in Read the full story
One of the themes of Chinese energy policy is the use of renewable, distributive energy solutions to aid rural development. One of the more successful rural energy development strategies is the use of biogas digesters, which involves a process whereby organic material such as agricultural or animal waste are broken down by specific types of bacteria by anaerobic digestion, releasing carbon dioxide and methane gas. For the chemistry geeks out there, here is the chemical equation:
C6H12O6 → 3CO2 + 3CH4
The resulting methane gas burns more cleanly than say wood, coal or kerosene, and is channeled indoors to run fire stoves for cooking or to run gas lamps. The use of biogas, especially in rural areas, provides a multiplicity of benefits that has made the popularization of biogas systems a cost-effective rural energy development strategy:
- Health. Indoor air quality is improved as methane burns more cleanly than existing stove fuels such as coal, wood or dung.
- Time. Much time (as much as 3 to 4 hours a day) otherwise used for wood collection is saved and can be devoted to economically productive activities.
- Money. Money otherwise spent on fuel is saved as the raw ingredients needed for biogas systems consist of agricultural, animal and human waste that is generated by the household anyways.
- Fertilizer. The residual slurry from the anaerobic digestive process makes for an ideal fertilizer for the farmer’s crops, reducing the need to purchase, and the demand for, petrochemical-based fertilizers.
- Reduced Deforestation. Deforestation (and its ecological implications such as soil erosion) is reduced as the demand for wood as a fuel is made unnecessary.
- Climate Protection. Methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential that is over a period of a hundred years some 25 times that of carbon dioxide, that might otherwise be leaked into the atmosphere through natural anaerobic decomposition is channeled towards productive uses.
Case Studies around China
The Shaanxi Mothers’ Environmental Protection Volunteer Association (Shaanxi Mothers) were recipients of an Ashden Award in 2006 for its efforts in spreading a biogas system that is dubbed in the following video as “four-in-one system.”
A true “four-in-one system,” however, consists of a greenhouse (an element missing in the above video), pigsty, human toilet, and anaerobic digester (See diagram below). This set up is favored in the colder northern regions as the greenhouse increases agricultural crop yields while keeping the pigs warm as well. For more information on “four-in-one systems,” click here, here and here.
The southern province of Yunnan (云南) (hat tip to China’s Green Beat)…
…and southwestern province of Guangxi (广西)…
… are also adopting their own variation of biogas digesters. The warmer climates in these regions make the economic case for integrating greenhouses less compelling, but similarly rely on closing the loop on human and animal waste and creating a circular flow of waste-to-energy to create a sustainable and renewable energy system.
An International Model for Rural Development?
The adaptability of Chinese biogas systems to other developing countries may be challenging. According to Village Earth:
Attempts to replicate the Chinese results outside the PRC have yielded very uneven results. Building materials, such as cement, lime and quarried stones which are produced locally on Chinese communes are unavailable or very expensive in many other countries. Also, the Chinese skill and diligence in construction (particularly for the vaulted dome designs) and maintenance may be difficult to find or develop elsewhere.
There is in fact a question on the veracity of reports on costs and gas yields of Chinese systems:
One observer notes that the Chinese digesters are very similar to septic tanks, and that their gas yields per unit volume may be only a fraction of large-scale sewage digesters—meaning the gas production may be significantly lower than commonly assumed. It should also be remembered that virtually all reports on the Chinese successes have come from the Chinese themselves, so that data on construction costs and gas yields need further confirmation.
General Electric has announced that it will provide its proprieatary Jenbacher gas engines for a biogas project that will convert methane generated from the anaerobic digestion of chicken waste into electricity in northern Beijing. The project is expected to qualify for clean development mechanism (CDM) financing by reducing an equivalent of 95,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year.