Climate Conversations - Turning waste to energy in China

By Sun Yinhong 

A couple in Rongpeng village use biogas to cook in their rural home in
Dujie town, Longan county, West Guangxi, China.
Photo: Susan Beccio/IFAD
Access to energy is key to eradicating poverty and ensuring food security. Rural communities need energy for a variety of purposes including cooking, lighting, heating, and powering farm and other production tools and equipment.

Globally, about one in five people lack electricity to light their homes or conduct business. In rural areas in developing countries, many people use indoor wood fires for energy, which can cause chronic respiratory diseases and increase mortality rates - not to mention the time spent in collecting firewood, a burden that falls more heavily on women and children.

Biogas is a type of fuel produced from organic waste such as dead plant and animal material, or human and animal waste. This methane gas can be used for lighting and cooking and provides benefits to the environment, as it helps reduce deforestation by reducing the need for fuel wood. In addition, capturing methane from waste reduces the damaging effects of global warming (methane is 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide in driving climate change).

This is good news for rural communities who can benefit from low-cost energy sources, as they do their part not to contribute further to climate change.

In China, population pressure and growing demand for food is straining the productive capacity of the 10 percent of China’s land area that is suitable for sustained cultivation. An increasing number of livestock compete for fodder on fragile rangelands. Flood-prone areas and deteriorating irrigation systems result in waterlogging and salt contamination. Encroaching deserts threaten formerly productive land.

An IFAD-funded project in China’s Guangxi province works with rural communities to install biogas converters. “We used to cook with wood,” said Liu Chun Xian, a farmer involved in the project. “The smoke made my eyes tear and burn and I always coughed. The children, too, were often sick…. Now that we’re cooking with biogas, things are much better.”

Each household involved in the project built its own plant to channel waste from the domestic toilet and nearby shelters for animals, usually pigs, into a sealed tank. The waste ferments and is naturally converted into gas and compost.

As a result of the project, living conditions and the environment have improved. Forests are protected, reducing greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation. A large amount of straw, previously burned, is now put into biogas tanks to ferment. This further reduces air pollution from smoke and helps produce high-quality organic fertilizer. In addition, the project has resulted in better sanitary conditions in the home.

Families, especially women, save 60 work days each year by not having to collect wood and tend cooking fires. This additional time is invested in raising pigs and producing crops.

With more time to spend improving crops, farmers in Fada, a village in the project area, increased tea production from 400 to 2,500 kilograms a day over a five-year period. Average income in the village has quadrupled to just over a dollar per day at end of the project.

This is significant in a country where the poverty line was 26 cents per day. And as a result of the project, 56,600 tons of firewood can be saved in the project area every year, which is equivalent to the recovery of 7,470 hectares of forest.

Another IFAD project in China supported the construction of about 63,700 biogas units for rural households in Mianyang Prefecture, Sichuan province. This was part of the post-earthquake disaster rehabilitation efforts.

The biogas systems provide a steady source of rural energy for those affected households and reduce their spending on energy. Application of biogas slurry also helps to reduce household spending on chemical fertilizers while improving soil and reducing pesticides.

Sun Yinhong is the IFAD country program officer based in Beijing, China. IFAD is co-organising Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day on Dec. 3, held in parallel with the climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

Originally posted on AlertNet