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Clean fire

Families from poor Asian and African nations use stoves that pollute less

Eduardo ferreiraBangladeshi housewife: less wood, less smokeEduardo ferreira

In January of this year, when going for the first time through the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, biologist Eduardo Ferreira got to know communities that were far poorer, larger and hotter than the São Paulo City shanty towns that he had visited 15 years earlier, as a volunteer from the Colégio Santa Cruz school, to teach people to read, write and avoid Aids. This time, his aim was to persuade the Bangladeshis to replace rudimentary stoves, made out of stones arranged in a corner of the kitchen, by more efficient models that burn half the amount of wood and produce less health-damaging smoke. If the negotiations with local stove producers work out, in the next few years one million stoves may be installed in Bangladesh, plus another 400 thousand in similarly poor communities in the neighboring country of Cambodia, where CalmateCare, a unit of the US investment bank JPMorgan, where Ferreira is a project manager, has financed the installation of 230 thousand stoves.

Rather than merely selling subsidized stoves to the poor, this biologist who graduated from Mackenzie University (Brazil) and did his master’s degree at Oxford is helping to implement a new approach – with the participation of families and communities from poor countries –  the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which promotes investment in projects to reduce the emission of  greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Because of the lack of institutions and scarcity of opportunities, poor, small or essentially agricultural countries have almost no access to CDM benefits, which essentially help companies in the industrial and power sectors, noted Teodoro Sanchez, a consultant from Practical Action, an English NGO, in a recent article in the journal Boiling Point, which presents energy alternatives for poor countries.

Respect for habits
“When a stove stops burning 50% of the fuel required to cook the same amount of food, it stops emitting 50% of the gases that were released before,”  Ferreira tells us. “Generally, a more efficient stove generates from half to two tons of carbon credits, corresponding to an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, which it did not emit.” ClimateCare, which finances local manufacturers to enable them to sell stoves more cheaply, will earn its carbon credits one or two years after installation. The earnings prospects are clear – in 2007, the international carbon trade doubled to US$60 billion and by 2012, European firms are expected to buy some US$25 billion of carbon credits – but the true impact of this mechanism to cut emissions is still uncertain. In an article by Fred Pierce in the April issue of the New Scientist, Ian Rodgers, head of UK Steel, stated that carbon deals are not going to cut emissions, but only move them elsewhere. Pierce stressed that pollution might be contained even without CDMs had industry looked after the environment before.

Ferreira argues that the benefits of community CDMs might be broader that those of industrial CDMs given that more efficient stoves reduce deforestation, enable families to spend less on timber or coal, and reduce the amount of black smoke inside the home. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), too much smoke may cause asthma, bronchitis and other serious respiratory problems, to the point of killing 1.5 million people, especially women and children. In the poorest nations of Asia and Africa, 2.4 billion people use stone stoves with solid fuel – timber, food waste, agricultural waste or animal dung – cooking for hours on end, every day.

Developing these stoves means, first, respecting cultural habits. “In Bangladesh and India, women are used to crouching to cook, rather than standing or sitting,” says Ferreira. “The stove must be developed in such a way that they don’t have to change this habit.” Also in Boiling Point, Lisa Feldmann and Verene Brinkmann, from GTZ, an international cooperation agency, remind us that to be accepted, a new stove must also be efficient, ensuring fuel savings of at least 40%, besides being modern and affordable. The 200 thousand stoves installed since 2003 in Uganda with GTZ helped save 200 thousand tons of wood a year and generated savings of  €140 thousand in public healthcare, by reducing the diseases caused by black smoke, besides providing €1.7 million (R$4 million) in carbon credits.

Ferreira was part of the ClimateCare team that found, in China, manufacturers of stoves that include a coil that heats water, which then flows into radiators and thus helps to warm the bed in which the entire family sleeps: “Parents, children and grandchildren, ranging from three to ten people, all together,” he tells. “The stoves we chose to work with in China are highly efficient and very interesting from the environmental standpoint, because people who live in the countryside can use straw, husks and residues from corn plantations as a source of energy, instead of coal.” The inhabitants of rural areas take the stalks, dry leaves and corn cobs to a government plan that presses all this waste into blocks that are used as fuel for the stoves. There is, however, a power deficiency: corn waste burns faster and produces half the energy as the same amount of coal.

Another possibility for cooking and warming up the home with less smoke and less deforestation is the use of biodigestors, closed tanks dug in the garden, lined with plastic and supplied with human or animal manure. A pipe with gases, mainly methane and CO2, comes out of the lid. These gases result from the fermentation of the residues and can be used for cooking with no smoke and to generate electricity to heat the house – the rest of the organic material can be used as fertilizer. “A three-meter wide biodigestor could supply a family that had to buy gas or timber to cook and warm up the house before,” he says. Each of the 150 thousand or so biodigestors already in operation in Bangladesh and in Nepal serves one to five families.