MALAWI: Carbon credits could fund development

Friday, May 30, 2008
An initiative to improve the health, wealth and environment of Malawians is being driven by a proposal to trade in carbon credits.

The concept is to trade carbon credits earned by curbing the effects of climate change through mechanisms established under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, to cover the cost of improving the lives and health of vulnerable communities in the world's poorest continent, which is also the least responsible for producing the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

"We believe what we are trying to do will work well, although it might take a few years to see large-scale results. This methodology is different to the traditional approach to development aid, as it is output- rather than input-orientated," Malawi-based Conor Fox, one of two men behind the venture, told IRIN.

"Almost every country in Africa is signed up to Kyoto. We decided to set up our operation in Malawi in February [2008] because it is one of the continent's least developed countries, which makes it one of the most vulnerable to climate change," Fox said.

According to a 2003 report by Malawi's National Energy Plan, the landlocked country, with a population of about 12 million, derives 93 percent of its energy needs from wood. As a consequence, the National Forestry Plan estimates that about 2.8 percent of the remaining woodland is being lost annually.

Reducing Malawi's reliance on wood as a source of energy would not only lower the levels of CO2 entering the atmosphere, but also prevent rivers from becoming silted up, soil erosion, and other negative environmental impacts such as the seasonal drying of water courses and flash flooding.

Fox and his UK-based partner, John O'Connor, who is managing the commercialisation of the enterprises, have launched two projects to reduce wood consumption.

Tobacco industry

The first aims to heighten efficiency in the country's largest export business, tobacco farming, by improving the technology smallholder farmers use to flue-cure the leaves in barns, which is usually done by means of wood-fired furnaces.

Updating this with technology developed by biomass energy consultant Peter Scott, a Canadian who has developed an affordable and efficient wood-burning furnace, the amount of wood required to cure a kilogram of tobacco has been reduced from a ratio of 15:1 to 2.5:1.

"Even out in the field, farmers using one of our older model furnaces burn 50 percent less wood than the traditional method of curing, and the quality of their tobacco is better, so they spend less money on wood and get a better price for their tobacco," Scott told IRIN.

Tests are being carried out to measure the difference in CO2 emissions between the new method, known as a 'Rocket Barn', and the old method. Scott said if he could get 5,000 of his 'Rocket Barn' curing systems established it would reduce the annual carbon emissions by Malawi's tobacco industry by about 100,000 tonnes.

"The potential for large-scale reductions is huge, as tobacco is grown throughout the region by large- and small-scale tobacco farmers. If we can roll out in a number of countries we can have a very positive effect," Fox said.

The second project aims to mass-produce ceramic stoves for cooking.

In 2001 the National Forestry Plan reported that household cooking and heating by means of traditional open fires accounted for about 82 percent of wood consumption in Malawi, as 97 percent of the population have no access to electricity at home.

The company owned by Fox intends to build on the initial work done by the Irish non-governmental organisation (NGO), Cara Malawi, which helped women in Kaphuka village, about 65km south of the capital, Lilongwe, make their own improved ceramic stoves.

"We feel there is also great potential here, as the improved ceramic stove design is made from local materials using local skills; that reduces wood consumption by about 50 percent, and reduces the exposure of women and children to indoor air pollution," Fox said.

National health statistics show that around 12,000 Malawians, many of them children, die each year from respiratory problems directly attributed to the smoke produced by cooking on indoor traditional fires, and the new technology would also reduce respiratory illnesses.

Any interventions rolled out by Fox and O'Connor have to complement and be consistent with the government's National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA), which is aimed at increasing Malawi's resilience in the face of a changing climate.

To ensure that this occurs, those who roll out interventions have to secure a letter of support from the Department of Environmental Affairs, which is the national focal point for Kyoto's clean development mechanisms and the NAPA.

"So one of the really important things is to build a relationship of trust with the government, and particularly the Department of Environmental Affairs, if this is to become successful," Fox said. "This is a risky business, as it is a relatively new concept that requires great sensitivity to everyone involved."

Managing carbon credits

It would mean that finance, channelled via the carbon-credit system, is secured on the back of verifiable results of carbon emission reductions, rather than being provided before any positive results have been achieved.

The development programme's ability to reduce carbon emissions can be measured by Gold Standard, a Switzerland-based non-profit organisation established in 2006 to guarantee environmental and development integrity, after the scrutinising the results.

Every tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) stopped from entering the earth's atmosphere under the Gold Standard measurement system earns the project one credit. This credit can then be sold to countries, companies, individuals and organisations that overproduce CO2, to offset the fines they can incur under the Kyoto Protocol.

"Unless we can scientifically prove our programmes reduce emissions into the atmosphere, and are of benefit to the host country in terms of sustainable development, we cannot earn the carbon credits we need to fund the programmes' large-scale rollout," Fox said. "If we have the credits to sell, then you know we are reducing emissions through our development programmes."

Kyoto's provisions allow industrial countries to meet part of their treaty obligations by financing projects in developing countries that achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Many northern hemisphere countries have already exceeded the greenhouse gas emission levels they set when they agreed to the treaty because of their heavy reliance on fossil fuels. A way of reducing this figure to meet targets in the short term, besides pro-actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is to purchase carbon credits from other countries or companies who have made verifiable greenhouse gas reductions.