Posts in 'People Making a Difference'

Biodigesters in Bangladesh

By Peter Goldmark

I’d like to invite you to take a little walk with me.

It’s hot where we’re going…really hot. We’re in a rural area but it’s fairly densely populated…it’s clear the people are very, very poor. This is low-lying country, most of the land is really not much above the rivers and the sea at all. See those levees and small mud dikes over there? See the huts clustered on those mounds? That’s to try to escape the water when it floods—which is often.

We’re in Bangladesh—the largest poor country in the world, or, if you prefer, the poorest large country in the world. The bay out there is the Bay of Bengal.

We walk now into the home of the Rayak family. We are here to see their biodigester.

Their what?

BiodigesterWith microfinancing for projects like biodigesters (above), farmers in Bangladesh are helping reduce global warming and avoiding illness. Credit: David Yarnold.

This is a cement vat that holds their animal waste. Actually that odor you’re smelling is unmistakable, so you know darn well what it holds. In this case, it’s not cow dung, it’s poultry waste…chickenshit, to use the vernacular.

It’s a three- cubic-meter tank. (This is a relatively large, souped-up biodigester model, so to speak, like a car with an overhead cam or turbocharged engine.) The waste runs from under the laying area of the chickens through a banked cement funnel into the biodigester, where it…ferments. I believe that’s the word the connoisseurs use. It ferments anaerobically, and presto! It produces…methane. A fair amount of it. This is trapped under pressure beneath the lid of the biodigester, and it is piped, in a simple plastic line hung from the trees, right into the Rayaks’ home. The methane is used for cooking and lighting. It’s essentially natural gas–clean, odorless.

The Rayak family is moderately prosperous by Bangladesh standards, although you would find them very poor. I saw at least six children, there may be more. They have a serious chicken farm. And now that they have clean energy, they’re no longer chopping down trees and shrubs for fuel, their children don’t have respiratory disease, and people emitting carbon in far away places like you and me are helping them to buy the biodigester – by buying the credits for avoided carbon generated by the Rayaks, aggregated by our partner Grameen Shakti, bought and underwritten through our partner E&Co and marketed to corporate buyers by one of our other partners, Ecosecurities. (And Grameen Bank is making a micro-loan to the Rayaks to help them finance the purchase of the biodigester.) It’s really quite a virtuous cycle, if you break it down and look at it closely.

Here is a family that either used expensive, carbon-emitting kerosene, or burned wood from shrubs and trees that also emitted carbon, and — worse — filled the house with smoke and particulates, putting the children at serious risk of ARI. Now they have clean, affordable energy – that emits a fraction of the carbon that was emitted before. So let’s add this up:

  • healthier children
  • less deforestation
  • less carbon emitted
  • cheaper energy for the family
  • the residue is a very powerful fertilizer, which the family can use or sell
  • and indirect benefits: higher literacy, lower fertility

Now maybe you begin to understand why EDF is working in this village with Grameen, helping monetize the avoided carbon to make the biodigesters cheaper and more acceptable – and using carbon financing to help Grameen take the whole system to scale.

But wait. Look overhead. Right there, on the tree branch over the biodigester — do you see the plastic lines? I see 14 lines spreading out through the trees overhead…What is going on, Mr. Rayak, I ask? It turns out that Mr. Rayak – who as you may recall had a deluxe, V8 turbocharged jumbo-sized biodigester, is selling methane to 14 other families. He has become, in fact, a clean energy entrepreneur. No one has anticipated this.

When I have dinner with my old friend Mohammed Yunus, the founder and head of Grameen next evening, he smiles knowingly and instructs me that this is not at all surprising…that of course, we were trying all along to tap into the initiative of the poor, that they are good credit risks (he slips into his basic Grameen shtick). I think he is full of…well you know, what we were talking about it earlier, and politely I tell him so. “Come on, Yunus, neither of us saw this coming.” He beams, and we both laugh. We both like this unanticipated dividend to our project.

Does all of this seem far away? Not much to do with cap-and-trade? Hard to fit the Rayak family and you and I into the same frame?

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The Rayaks and you and I are all in the same boat. That is the crux, the brutal reality of the enormous adventure on which we have embarked: a race to see if we can get enough carbon out of the human economic enterprise to allow the atmosphere to stabilize before the most catastrophic consequences of global warming occur.

Seeing all of these pieces — the huge oil majors; Gazprom; the automobile industry; the assembly-line of Chinese coal plants; buildings around the world that leak huge amounts of energy; the vast deforestation underway in Indonesia protected in some places by the army; and the Rayak family, and his 14 neighbors who are buying methane from him — seeing all of this in the same frame – that’s what’s required, isn’t it?

We are trying to convince, coax and cajole six billion people to get on the same road and face together in the same direction: to choose the road of low-carbon, high efficiency, economic growth and individual opportunity.

If you tell me that this is difficult, I will nod in grim agreement.

If you tell me that it is idealistic, I will tell you that it is essential.

If you tell me that it is romantic, I will tell you that no door ever opens unless you knock.

Personal Nature

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Tackling Nitrogen Pollution

EDF is doing a great deal of work in partnership with farmers around the country to develop solutions to nitrogen pollution. Working with the Iowa Soybean Association, we created a rapidly growing initiative that helps farmers use nitrogen much more efficiently.

Infographic: How to Revive America’s Rivers and Agriculture. View full size »

We’ve partnered with almost 800 farmers in Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, to help them assess the amount of nitrogen they need to use—and to reduce run-off of excess fertilizers. The program has recently expanded to Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois. More targeted applications save the farmers money—the price of fertilizers having doubled over the last decade.

“The On-Farm Network delivers real benefits for farmers and the environment,” says EDF’s Deputy Director of the Center for Conservation Incentives, Suzy Friedman. “With so many U.S. watersheds suffering from nitrogen runoff, we need programs like this to align environmental goals with farmers’ economic interests.”

EDF is also working to help farmers understand the value of buffer zones between their fields and waterways. Rather than mow down to a river’s edge, farmers can plant trees, shrubs and grasses, whose roots will absorb nitrogen before it drains into the water. Wetlands restoration is critical to this effort as well. EDF helped persuade Congress to establish several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reward farmers for planting riparian buffers rather than crops. The vivid, cheerful renewal of bird and animal life at the water’s edge is its own reward.

Portrait of a Preacher

Reverend Sally Bingham

Interfaith Power & Light founder Reverend Sally Bingham is sometimes referred to as “the godmother of the environmental movement in the religious community.” Bingham’s story is fascinating; she was a stay-at-home mother of three children in San Francisco when she felt a call to the Priesthood; at the age of 45, she enrolled in college, having completed only a high school education before marrying, and then went on to seminary.

She found her calling when she realized she never heard sermons about the importance of being stewards of God’s creation, a central mandate of any religion. On the weekend of February 13 and 14, members of her group Interfaith Power & Light will conduct a national preach-in on global warming and host discussions about putting faith into action.

Following are some excerpts of an email correspondence:

On Interfaith Power & Light: “We are growing so fast we cannot keep up. Every year new states come on—some red states, too, where faith is leading the effort.”

On Copenhagen: “Disappointment will be the flavor of the coming weeks, but at the same time we are energized to work even harder. Copenhagen established a short-term goal of persuading the U.S. Senate that it has a moral responsibility to limit greenhouse gases in this country. Faith leaders all over America know that we have a responsibility to protect the poor among us and that they are hurt the most and contribute the least to the problem. This is a justice issue, and for precisely that reason it is a religious one.

The religious community at large will be mostly pleased over Secretary Clinton’s pledge of $100 billion of aid to the developing nations. That is something we were working for.

On politics and religion: “Jesus said, ‘what you do to the least of us you do to me.’ Climate change is a moral issue first. It is a justice issue. We are supposed to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. You are breaking that commandment when you pour engine oil in the storm drain behind your house; it goes to your neighbor’s water. You pollute your neighbor’s air when you use electricity that is created by burning coal. Furthermore, it is insulting to God to blow the tops off the beautiful mountains that God called ‘good’. They are sacred.

On occasion a person will say ‘keep politics out of the church,’ but that usually doesn’t come from clergy. They know that we are the stewards of the earth and most religious leaders understand that upsetting the climate is more, much more, than a political issue.”

On the clerical role in social change: “When a society has to make a cultural change (like switching to clean energy and a green economy) it will not happen without the moral authority that comes from preaching by religious leaders. There are millions of people who don’t listen to politicians and who are skeptical of science, but who WILL listen to their clergy.”

The Ticking Clock

A bonus feature from my October column “Understand Science and Believe in Action

Steve Hamburg is delighted to talk about backyards. EDF’s chief scientist pulls out a chart covered with the harvest notes of a maple syrup farmer in New Hampshire; he has been keeping detailed records since 1959. “These notes are a treasure,” he says. “We’re organizing an exhibit about how global warming will affect people locally, where they live, and this will be part of it.”

“This farmer didn’t think his trees had been affected by a change in climate,” he says. “He couldn’t see the pattern because he was distracted by all the noise—the annual details of weather, snowfall, production. We analyzed his production numbers and what we saw quite clearly was that by 2003 he is producing syrup much earlier in the season, a product of operating with one month less of snow cover every year. He’s still getting lots of syrup, but only because his technology is much better now. The sap isn’t running at peak for as long as it used to. He’s getting less productive time, later in the spring. And pretty soon the maples won’t have enough cold weather to produce much of anything at all.”

You can look at a map of sugar maple trees and see that they are marching northward; it is a matter of time before maple syrup becomes exclusively a Canadian export. “And after Canada? Eventually, there is nowhere to go.” The same is true for blueberries and cranberries; it is hard to imagine New England without the brilliant fall colors that all these plants provide. Lobster ranges are changing; spruce is declining. “I never used to see ticks at my cabin in New Hampshire,” Hamburg says. “Now we’re crawling with them.”

The exhibit Hamburg is organizing, with funding from EDF and the National Science Foundation, will address climate change in the northeast, and will open in November at the Ecoterium in Worcester, Mass. Next there will be a traveling exhibit in North Carolina and hopefully exhibits on the local effects of climate change for the rest of the U.S. as well.

What You Can Do

Please take a moment to send an email to your members of Congress supporting strong climate and energy action.

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