Buying up emissions
By Nataly Jürges
Comfort Benson from Kaduna in northern Nigeria bought a stove that uses much less wood, and she is quite happy using it to prepare her meals. “At first I did not believe that egusi soup would taste the same without all of that smoke,” she says, laughing. Her new stove burns 80 % less wood than a traditional three-rock fire. To bring six litres of water to a boil, she only needs a handful of small twigs.
Nigeria’s rural population depends on traditional sources of energy, primarily wood, charcoal and various plants. In some areas, demand outstrips supply so much that energy security itself is at risk.
Every year, four million hectares of wood are chopped down in Africa. The World Food Programme warns that, at current exploitation rates, existing forests will be completely destroyed in 50 years. The environmental impact of deforestation is getting worse, ranging from soil erosion and desertification to changes in the microclimate. These trends put the rural people at risk. Women are particularly affected because they have to walk increasing distances in their search of firewood.
Comfort Benson bought her stove from DARE, the Nigerian Development Association for Renewable Energies. This organisation sells efficient stoves at subsidised prices. It stages events in Christian as well as Muslim villages to demonstrate what the stove can do. It also raises awareness for the consequences of deforestation and climate change. Like many people, Comfort Benson buys her firewood from dealers in the city. She hopes to recoup the stove’s purchase price in six to 14 months by economising on wood.
For some 30 years, development projects have been trying to introduce better stoves that use less wood and produce less smoke. The aim is not just to protect the forests, but just as much to protect the health of women and children who suffer from exposure to smoke.
At first, solar cookers were considered the non plus ultra. But all attempts to introduce them in sub-Saharan Africa failed. They do require sunlight, so they are of no use in the rainy season or after sunset. They are also expensive to make. Engineers therefore began to work on more efficient wood stoves. However, they also proved difficult to market.
Many women do not want to give up the traditional three-rock fire. A lot of people believe the fireplace is one of the family’s souls and must not be removed. Many women, moreover, fear their meals will not taste the same with less smoke. The greatest obstacle of all, however, is the high price of fuel-efficient stoves. Even though they offer significant long-term savings, they simply cost too much for many households.
In the past few years, there has been a new option for subsidising stoves. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which took effect under the Kyoto Protocol in 2006, enables industrialised nations to buy emissions credits in developing countries instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at home. The CDM is an instrument, the international community created to channel private-sector investments to developing countries. If a Nigerian organisation registers its stove programme as a CDM project it can sell the carbon certificates it gets for reducing emissions. The proceeds, in turn, enable it to sell stoves at subsidised prices. Even poor families can afford to buy one.
DARE uses the CDM to subsidise stoves. Every year, a traditional fireplace emits nearly three tonnes of carbon more than a fuel-efficient DARE stove. DARE aims to sell 12,000 stoves. All summed up, these efforts will reduce Nigeria’s carbon emissions by an annual 30,000 tonnes or so. DARE sells CDM emission certificates and uses the revenue to reduce the stove price. Therefore, Comfort Benson only spent € 60 instead of € 120 on hers. The project has been extraordinarily successful so far; DARE has already sold more than 3,000 stoves.
There are downsides, however. CDM registration is expensive and it is hard to forecast profits since it is impossible to predict the future of emissions trading. Accordingly, the registration costs amount to a substantial financial risk. Most local organisations are unable to start any CDM project without external funding. DARE, for instance, needed a loan from the German non-governmental organisation Lernen-Helfen-Leben (“learn-help-live”). Dare also relies on a contract with a business company that buys emission certificates because it has to compensate for flight-related carbon emissions.
The CDM requires extensive documentation of every single step. Each stove has an identification number, and the name and address of each buyer is recorded. Accordingly, DARE’s CDM data can be randomly checked every year. DARE has to stick to the procedure or else may lose the project status. Some DARE employees at first thought the extensive administrative efforts constituted an undue burden on the small NGO. They still believe they would spend their time more usefully selling stoves than filling in Excel tables.
All the more sobering is that no one knows just how effective the stoves are in environmental terms. While they do improve women’s health, the ecological dimension is extremely hard to gauge because of what is known as the “rebound effect”. Ironically, more efficient technologies – like fuel-efficient stoves – can increase energy use. The Ali family, for instance, bought a new stove two years ago and, from then on, spent less on firewood. Later they bought a motorbike from their savings. While their quality of life has increased and their consumption of firewood has dropped, the motorcycle means their carbon emissions have increased.
It is difficult to say how energy-efficient stoves will affect the demand for wood in the long term – and whether the project will lead to the promised reduction of emissions that would compensate for those of German air travellers. Firewood consumption, moreover, is just one of many reasons for deforestation in Africa. Lots of trees are chopped down to clear arable land, for charcoal production and wood export – and more efficient stoves will not prevent that from happening.
From a strictly developmental viewpoint, however, the stoves definitely make sense. They improve the standard of life of people who can still increase their carbon emissions quite a bit before they reach the average levels of people in rich nations.