Friday, 13 April 2012

Carbon Credits Make Wonderful Things Happen

Quick quiz: What's the leading cause of death for children around the world?

A: Malnutrition
C: Malaria
D: Respiratory infection

Well done if you guessed (D) - the photo* provided a hint.

According to the World Health Organization (see Table 3), acute respiratory infection is the leading cause of death for children under five around the world.  More than HIV/AIDS, or malaria, or malnutrition, or diarrhoea.

Around the world, parents and their children are exposed to indoor air pollution dozens or even hundreds of times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) limits, as they prepare their meals or boil water using dirty fuels on inefficient, polluting cook stoves. The United Nations estimates that more than two billion (that's 2,000,000,000) people around the world cook with these traditional solid fuel stoves, using technology that hasn't advanced much since the Stone Age.  It's a practice that damages lives, livelihoods and the environment.  Governments aren't doing enough to tackle energy poverty in the developing world.  Grant funding tends to be too small and too short-lived to make much difference.  It's an outrage.

And it's the original reason I co-founded Carbon Clear.

Helping people access cleaner stoves and fuels can reduce exposure to indoor air pollution and improve health.  Reducing fuel consumption and shifting to modern fuels can reduce labour burdens for the women and girls who spend hours each day collecting firewood.  Where families must spend money to buy wood and charcoal, more efficient cooking translates into immediate financial savings.  What's more, reducing wood consumption helps to ease pressure on our precious remaining forests, with attendant benefits for biodiversity, soil quality and watershed management.

There's another benefit worth mentioning.  Improved stoves, fuels, and cooking techniques can translate into reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And that fact means projects that deliver improved stoves and fuels can, when properly designed, generate carbon credits for sale to organisations that wish to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions.  Indeed, the anticipated carbon credit revenue can be enough to cover most of the capital and running costs for household energy projects.

Projects that reduce energy poverty for poor families provide so many obvious contributions to human health and improved livelihoods that we should be showering them with resources.

But we aren't.

The funding and monitoring mechanisms in the health and forestry sectors are simply not well-enough developed to channel resources to these projects on the scale required. It's been fifteen years since I first heard that two-billion without clean energy number.  Fifteen years later, the number has not diminished significantly.

Fortunately, carbon finance is up to the challenge.  The carbon markets provide us with an opportunity to leverage the power of the private sector to craft more sustainable solutions to these problems.  The carbon markets are big enough to channel millions or billions of dollars into clean energy projects that benefit households and communities.  Unlike the one- or two-year grants provided by governments and charitable foundations, carbon finance is patient capital, with projects typically running for ten years or more.  Companies like Carbon Clear have established stakeholder consultation processes, legal mechanisms, independent quality standards and robust monitoring and verification systems that allow carbon credit buyers to send money to the developing world and track results over the long term.

With carbon offset projects like wind farms, hydropower and methane capture, the emission reductions are reason enough to sponsor the initiative. After all, climate change is one of the most pressing problems of our time and projects that put us on a path to a lower-carbon future deserve support.  Co-benefits like local job creation and charitable contributions to nearby communities are a bonus.

Household energy projects turn this logic on its head.  These are initiatives that deserve large-scale and long-term support even absent their contribution in the fight against climate change.  However, it is their greenhouse gas reduction potential, and the growing maturity of the carbon markets, that makes it possible to channel that support.

With household energy projects, buying carbon credits become much more than a way to tackle climate change.  Buying carbon credits makes it possible to reduce indoor air pollution, reduce women's labour burdens, fight deforestation, improve soil and water quality, preserve biodiversity and help families save money.

Carbon offsets can make wonderful things happen.

(*Thanks to People & Planet for the photo, which provided a hint to the right answer.)