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A burning issue in the climate change fight

DR Congo, December 3, 2009

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Jack Farchy

Financial Times
December, 2009

Agnes Nyanzira is not concerned about her carbon footprint. She lives in a camp for internal refugees just outside Goma, eastern Congo, has seven children to care for, has a problem with one of her feet, and feels she spends all day collecting firewood.

That should soon change. On the uneven volcanic ground where she has pitched her tiny tent, Ms Nyanzira is showing off her new, fuel-efficient cooking stove. It is a potent, if modest, weapon against climate change. By burning wood more completely, it will roughly halve the amount of fuel she uses.

Partly funded by selling carbon credits to western companies trying to offset their emissions, Ms Nyanzira’s cooking stove offers an insight into how environmentally friendly projects can help more than just the environment.

Elisha Moore-Delate, who runs the stoves project in Congo for aid agency Mercy Corps, says the biggest benefit of the stoves is that they increase security in the volatile region, particularly for women. “There are large military factions where they are going to collect wood. [The fuel-efficient stoves mean] they are less frequently out in areas of conflict and potential danger.”

It is the social potential of projects such as this as well as their environmental impact that attracts western investors, says Jamal Gore, managing-director of Carbon Clear, a London-based company that buys the carbon credits generated by the programme in eastern Congo.

This is the appeal of the voluntary carbon trading market, he says, as opposed to the market in “compliance” carbon credits regulated under the Kyoto protocol, through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism and the European Union’s emissions trading scheme. “It would be easier to go out and invest in a traditional wind farm or landfill gas project but that wouldn’t reach the goals we’re aiming for.”

The voluntary carbon market has grown exponentially until the current recession. The value of voluntary credits traded in 2008 increased by 110 per cent to $705m, according to a review of the market by Ecosystem Marketplace and New Carbon Finance, but that is still only a fraction of the value of the compliance market, worth $118bn (€78bn, £71bn) in 2008.

The project in Congo is only partially funded by carbon credits. The bulk of the funding comes from the European Commission. “With the cost of production, the cost of salaries, it’s very hard to break even [just by selling carbon credits],” says Ms Moore-Delate. At current prices, one stove generates £8 a year in carbon credits.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a leading climate change scientist at the University of California San Diego, argues that projects like this one could also have a “huge benefit” for global warming.

Most people in eastern Congo use a simple stove made of three stones, a highly wasteful set-up that uses a lot of fuel and fails to burn it completely – increasing emissions of soot, or “black carbon”.

Reducing emissions of black carbon by changing cooking practices in the developing world is, Prof Ramanathan argues, a “low-hanging fruit” of climate change: though not a replacement for cutting carbon dioxide, it could be achieved more easily, more cheaply and have a faster effect.

He believes that a market mechanism can be found to make such projects viable and expand them to cover the entire developing world.

To test the theory, he has just begun a large-scale research project in India that will be the first to measure systematically the climatic effects of whole villages changing the type of cooking stove they use. He believes the results will show that reducing black carbon emissions is spectacularly more effective than cutting carbon dioxide emissions. “If my data can show that one tonne of black carbon has the same effect of healing the climate as 1,000 tonnes of [carbon dioxide] – just imagine the carbon credits each villager would gain,” he said.