10/14/2013 - 05:47

Small scale, small contribution

In his Round Two essay, N.H. Ravindranath argued in favor of small-scale bioenergy technologies such as efficient cookstoves and electrifying villages with biogas. These technologies, he wrote, can mitigate climate change, support rural development, reduce soot, and so forth. To be sure, the technologies that Ravindranath discussed will be welcomed around the world if they prove effective and appropriate—and if patent protections do not prove an obstacle to their adoption. But the resulting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be small.

Why? Because poor people, whose carbon emissions these technologies would reduce, produce very little carbon in the first place. As I mentioned in Round One, the planet's poorest 1 billion people are responsible for only 3 percent of global carbon emissions. The 1.26 billion people whose countries belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development account for 42 percent of emissions. The rich, if they reduced their emissions by just 8 percent, could achieve more climate mitigation than the poor could achieve by reducing their emissions to zero. The rich could manage this 8 percent reduction by altering their lifestyles in barely noticeable ways. For the poor, a reduction of 100 percent would imply permanent misery.

Ravindranath discussed a study carried out in India that examined the climate mitigation benefits of substituting biomass energy for diesel fuel. "Over 100 years," he reported, "[this approach] would prevent 92.5 metric tons of carbon per hectare from entering the atmosphere." One hundred years! The average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of carbon emissions in a single year. If one imagines an American household of four that somehow existed for 100 years, this household would need to reduce its emissions by only 1.31 percent to achieve 92.5 metric tons of reduced carbon emissions. A reduction so small could easily be achieved with more efficient kitchens or cars, better insulation, or a bit more bike-riding. Surely this approach represents a better bargain for all concerned than does devoting a hectare of Indian land to producing feedstock for biomass energy, when that land might be put to use feeding Indian families.

I would also point out that biomass energy is a component of any serious strategy for organic agriculture, a practice I strongly recommended in Round One. Peasants around the world have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries—without consuming fossil fuels and therefore without harming the climate. It was only the development of "modern" agriculture—highly mechanized, and dependent on intensive fertilizer and pesticide use—that transformed agriculture into a sector that today is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not the poor whose emissions need to be cut. Suggesting otherwise implicitly blames them for a problem they did not create, a problem from which they are already suffering disproportionately. Indeed, the heroes of climate mitigation ought to be—instead of engineers who develop new technologies—the traditional, organic agriculturalists who use biomass energy in the same responsible ways that their forebears have used it for centuries.