It’s a small tax in just one city, but the disposable shopping bag fee to be launched in the District of Columbia on New Year’s Day marks the beginning of sanity for the disposable society. It’s a sensible way to raise (modest) government revenue while tilting personal behavior (also modestly) toward global environmental sustainability. (For much more on the topic of how to encourage the evolution of sustainable cultures worldwide, be sure to check out the Worldwatch Institute’s upcoming State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability.)

D.C. consumers will have the option of using their own bags for groceries and sundries (many stores will give these away for free in January) or paying a nickel for each plastic or paper bag their purchases require. The modest size of the tax—and that’s what it is—has inspired grousing about being “nickled and dimed” by government. But it will hardly be a hardship for shoppers at any income level—especially since it’s easily evaded by simply carrying your own cloth bags. Or you can simply keep and reuse plastic and paper bags you received for free in 2009. 

The main goal, of course, is behavior change—an idea many social conservatives loathe when governments and taxes are involved. But tax-induced behavior change is nothing new. No one objects to liquor and tobacco taxes, which modestly discourage consumption of these socially problematic goods. It’s about time we begin taxing consumption of environmentally problematic (and unnecessary) paper and plastic products. Similar taxes should have been instituted years ago—and eventually will be—to discourage emissions of greenhouse gases.

Despite the annoyance of being nickled and dimed and the inevitable gripes from some that governments shouldn’t  use its power to tax in order to limit personal freedom, four good developments can arise from green consumption taxes.

One, revenues raised can induce reductions in income and property taxes, neither of which discourage inherently harmful behavior. Two, raising the cost of environmentally damaging consumption will discourage it, not just through its marginally higher costs but through the regularly reinforced message that society is trying to reduce it. Three, to the extent environmentally unsustainable behavior is actually reduced, the environment will benefit tangibly. (The bag tax in D.C. was promoted in large part to clean up the plastic-clogged Anacostia River, and that argument convinced the City Council to approve the tax by a wide margin.)

And finally, and perhaps best of all, such taxes fairly and equitably remind all people that we live in a crowded, resource-constrained world and we need to find ways to minimize the environmental room each of us takes up. That’s sanity, and the D.C. bag tax is a beginning. 

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Like many people, I suppose, when it comes to important and complex issues I tend to be swayed by the latest plausible thing I’ve read. Following the failure of the Copenhagen conference to make any serious headway on climate change, I’ve started to think that James Hansen is right.

hansenjamesHansen is one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world, mainly because of his activism. That activism stems from his passion about the urgent need for climate action, which has led him to stick his neck farther out than any of his peers. All this is evident in his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. As the title suggests, Hansen does not limit himself to cold reason and analysis, though there is plenty of that. This is a deeply personal book (sometimes a little too personal; the bit about his prostate surgery doesn’t really add to the argument) in which repeated references to his three grandchildren highlight the stakes for the coming generations if we fail to address climate change adequately now.

I won’t recap his overview of the state of climate science, except to say that it’s terrifying. (Pretty much everything we’ve been warned about is happening, only faster.) More interesting, and controversial, are his prescriptions, which will discomfit many environmentalists. Above all, Hansen believes that humanity simply must stop burning coal for energy, as well as leave most of the rest of the planet’s fossil fuels in the ground. Coal is Hansen’s chief villain, not only because of its contribution to climate change, but also because it demonstrably kills tens of thousands of people every year—year after year.

Not much argument there. But Hansen adamantly does not believe that efficiency and renewables have a prayer of replacing coal, at least anytime soon. He points to Germany and Japan, two technically advanced nations that lead the world in efforts to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Germany is building more coal plants as it phases out nuclear power, while Japan—which hosted the Kyoto protocol negotiations and pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels—has seen its emissions rise to 9 percent above that benchmark. Forget the technical arguments, Hansen implies: it’s what is technically and politically possible that matters. And these nations have done the best anybody could do.

Hansen also argues that cap and trade programs are a snare and a delusion: too readily gamed and loopholed and offsetted to death by the hordes of lobbyists (repeatedly referred to as the alligator-shoe people) and greenwashers. (Hansen’s contempt for the corruption in climate policy is palpable.) And the only sensible technical solution, he believes, is nuclear power: third- and fourth-generation plants that are modular, supposedly cheaper and faster to build, supposedly much safer, and—in the form of “fast” reactors—actually capable of gradually eliminating the waste problem (they burn spent fuel from first-generation reactors).

I often found myself nodding, a bit uneasily, in agreement. He makes good points. Cap-and-trade programs do indeed look very squishy; the European experience to date sounds a cautionary note. But while Hansen’s preferred alternative, the fee-and-dividend approach (a price on all carbon, with the money rebated to consumers), sounds simpler and more workable, you just know any such proposal in the United States will be labeled a tax and immediately crash in flames.

 Moreover, concerning nuclear power, Hansen does not directly address the points made by Amory Lovins and others that nuclear power is too expensive (billions of dollars per power plant) and slow to come on line (roughly 10 years per plant). Nor does he talk about the risks inherent in fast reactor technology, which uses plutonium that can be diverted into weapons. And finally, his prescriptions beg the question of how will those same political systems, with their built-in friction and sensitivity to special interests, do any better in getting rid of coal plants or siting new nuclear plants, however benign they may turn out to be?

Which brings us to Hansen’s strategy—and I believe he’s absolutely right about this, whichever course makes sense: “The public must demand a strategic approach that leaves most fossil carbon in the ground. …Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward. They hesitate; they hang back. Therefore it is up to you. You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren on this matter. …It is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved.”

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Last Supper for MalthusA few days ago I watched the upcoming film Last Supper for Malthus: The Permanent Food Crisis. This film cleverly uses running commentary by the ghosts of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo to discuss the modern food crisis—where 1 billion people are now chronically undernourished. The film centers around this question: Is the food crisis caused simply because animals (including humans) reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of their environment and thus inevitably some starve (as Malthus states), or is this a systemic failing due to current distortions in trade, priorities, and so on (as Ricardo states)?

The documentary, being quite short and not clearly coming down on one side, leaves it to the viewer to determine whether starvation is natural or stems from systemic failings—which considering the complexity of agriculture today, perhaps wasn’t the best editorial choice. Speculation, agri-business interests, unmeasured externalities, dependence on aquifers that once gone will make many lands unsuitable for agriculture, biofuels’ rapid growth, and distortions from the World Bank and World Trade Organization all have significant and complex impacts on the global food system—too complex for most viewers to clearly understand in a lifetime, let alone 52 minutes (myself included). Thus, it would have been welcome to have more elaboration on the role of powerful interests to clearly show that even if Malthus is right—by nature we do grow beyond our means to survive—the system is at least accelerating this tendency instead of inhibiting it.

But I do want to draw attention to a powerful quotation in the film to draw out consumerism’s role in this crisis. Towards the end of the film, Gary Howe of the International Fund for Agricultural Development says,

“We’re not anywhere near the limits at the moment. That’s nonsense. We are not in that sort of crisis. Humanity is not coming to an end, it’s not the end of the world, and no, you don’t have to go on a diet tomorrow. But it is clear that our systems, which are accelerating consumption, cannot be sustained. Not by agriculture, not by the Earth.”

That is a key point. The global food system won’t crash tomorrow, even if one billion are already starving today. But add a few ill-timed stressors: climate change-driven drought or storms for example, combined with the spread of consumption-accelerating systems in developing countries (such as the intentional stimulation of desire for meat and cars by these industries) and the system “cannot be sustained.” Period.

Let me draw attention to two great bits from the film that reinforce this.

First is a clip of archival footage that describes how chicken, which used to be a very expensive meat in America and only eaten on special occasions, “is now thrifty everyday.” Changes in production—what we know now as confined agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs)—supported by grain subsidies, externalization of pollution and so on, has played a significant role in accelerating consumption. These production techniques will have to be changed, not exported to other countries—as CAFOs have been exported to more and more countries of the world over the last few decades.

The second bit was the discussion of biofuels. As the film notes, ironically, to combat climate change we’re redirecting 5 percent of global grain production into making biofuels. But in the process, we’re raising grain prices and pricing the poor out of the market (hence the total undernourished increasing by 150 million over the past few years). But what was so powerful was a statement by Jean Ziegler, author of Empire of Shame.

“To fill a 50 liter car tank running on ethanol, you need to burn 354 kilos of corn. With 354 kilos of corn, a Mexican or Zambian child lives another year. It is therefore a crime against humanity.”

A bold statement, one that I would agree with (once one understands the linkage, continuing to do this is immoral). But if that is a crime against humanity, so is eating too much meat, or feeding meat or even grain to pets, as this too is food shifted away from starving humans for luxurious living by those that can afford it.

Surely, few will agree with these statements, as it is our culture to not see things in these terms, to see instead that it is our right to eat what we want, to buy whatever we can afford. And even more: we’re used to living these ways and we rarely think about whether a certain habitual act is moral or not—it’s simply the normal way to live. But the beauty of culture (and its danger) is that anything can be made to feel normal. The problem of course is that those things that are now normal cause tremendous suffering and are leading to the destabilization of all of human civilization. Yet as most people—from policymakers to journalists and from advertisers to friends—all tell us that how we live is normal (and even superior) we rebel against those who criticize the current system. But as Malthus says to Ricardo at the end of the movie as they head to dinner before returning to the cemetery, “Rather be right than liked. Ruddy ostriches!”

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Beyond Band-Aids for hunger
St. Louis Post Dispatch
By Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil
Tuesday, Dec. 29 2009

It’s been 25 years since a well-meaning music producer threw together a bunch of megastars to record the humanitarian torch song “Do They Know it’s Christmas.” Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid raised millions of dollars and immeasurable awareness with the compelling chorus of “feed the world,” but global interest in those hungry people has plummeted in the last two decades, if the barometer is international investment in agriculture. Agriculture’s share of global development aid has dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent since the song debuted, even though most of the world’s poor and hungry people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The famine-stricken Ethiopia that inspired the song in the 1980s remains hobbled by food shortages. Some 23 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk for starvation, according to the World Food Program, which delivers food aid around the world. The global recession and a recent spike in food prices aren’t helping, either. The United Nations reported recently that the number of hungry people worldwide has crested 1 billion.

The sheer number of hungry people isn’t the only reason we must raise our standards for success. Because agriculture makes up such a large percentage of the planet’s surface, and intimately touches our rivers, air and other natural resources, the world can’t tolerate some of the unintended — and counterproductive — consequences of how we farm and produce food. And farmers everywhere, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, need crop varieties and whole new approaches to farming that help them deal with drought, extreme heat and increasingly erratic weather.

Our collective understanding of how to “cure” hunger has matured enough to recognize that solutions lie not only in shipping food aid, but also in a new approach to agriculture that nourishes people and the planet.
There is no shortage of innovative ideas on the African continent.

We have four recommendations for farmers, agribusiness, politicians and other agricultural decision-makers:

— Move beyond seeds.

The vast majority of global investment in agriculture is aimed at seeds. But we’ve neglected the environment in which the seeds grow: the soil, trees, livestock, the farm and the food processors, roads and other pieces of the food system that gets the crop to market and onto tables.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world where the greatest percentage of people are hungry, just 4 percent of the farmland is irrigated (in Asia, 70 percent of farmland is irrigated). In parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mali, the hundreds of thousands of farmers using inexpensive, locally made water pumps have seen incomes double and triple because they can grow a greater range of crops over a greater share of the year and are protected from losing entire crops to drought.

— Cut the slack in the system.

Instead of focusing on increasing production, make better use of what we already produce. It turns out that a shocking 30 percent to 50 percent of the harvest in poorer nations spoils or is contaminated by pests or mold before it reaches the dinner table.

Simple fixes can go a long way. In Nairobi, Margaret Njeri Ndimu has started selling goat milk in plastic bags sealed with candle wax. She learned this simple process through a training program provided by the Mazingira Institute; the bags make it easier to manage and sell her milk, allowing her customers to purchase small quantities of the perishable milk in portable containers. Similar practices can be used by other urban milk producers in cities all over the world.

— Go local (and regional).

Just as important as the techniques that farmers use is to what extent the farmers and farm communities control the techniques. Locavores in the United States and Europe argue the benefits of a decentralized food system. Solutions for hunger are rooted in harnessing local crop diversity, building up locally owned infrastructure and developing regional markets.

In Kampala, Uganda, Project Disc is working with Slow Food chapters to catalogue and revive neglected indigenous foods and foodways that can help inject diversity into diets and farmers’ fields. At the World Vegetable Center in Tanzania, researchers are working with farmers to breed vegetable varieties that don’t need fertilizers and pesticides, use less water, are locally appropriate and raise farmer income. Babel Isack, a Tanzanian tomato farmer, advises staff at the center about tomato varieties that best suit his needs, including those that depend less on chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

— Position farms on the front line of climate change.

Agriculture is the human endeavor that will be most affected by climate change. But agriculture, livestock grazing and forestry — responsible for nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions — is the only near-term option for large-scale greenhouse sequestration. A combination of farming with perennial crops and grasses, cutting nitrogen fertilizer use and managing manure better, reducing erosion and enriching soils with organic matter could offset one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Dr. Frank Place of the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, several million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are using leguminous trees and shrubs that are grown along with or before or after crops. This technique can improve soil, double or triple the yields of the subsequent crop and eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers.

All of these measures hold untapped potential for boosting global food production, strengthening rural communities, rebuilding ecosystems and reducing poverty and hunger. And in contrast to “Band-Aid” shipments of food, the lasting solutions will involve farmers and food communities working together to feed themselves.

Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil are senior researchers at the Worldwatch Institute. Danielle has been traveling in sub-Saharan Africa for the last two months researching innovations in African agriculture.

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Over the holidays, one of the State of the World authors, John de Graaf is debating on The Economist’s website with Robert Gordon of Northwestern University on the following resolution:

This house believes that Europeans would be better off with fewer holidays and higher incomes.

I find it hard to even see this as a debate as the only way we’re going to create a sustainable economy is by working many fewer hours and better distributing work among people. Having some people work long hours while others are chronically underemployed is a loser many times over. Stress, ill-health, lack of time for family and civic engagement for those working too much, lack of security for those working too little, and as the data in this slide by Chris Jones of University of California, Berkeley shows, the more discretionary income a household or individual has, the larger their carbon footprint. Having some work fewer hours will mean security for those that would then be employed and less stress and more time (instead of more money to consume with) for those working long hours now.

But enough on this topic by me. Here’s a sneak peak at John’s State of the World 2010 article “Reducing Worktime as a Path to Sustainability,” and a link to The Economist debate. It’s going on until December 31st, so weigh in, but of course, not during the holiday break or John would be mad!

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If the Copenhagen climate conference were an episode of the popular children’s show “Sesame Street,” one might imagine the following announcement at its conclusion:  “This show was brought to you by letter F”—F for farce, failure, fiasco.

The Financial Times rightly asked: “One wonders how a conference to conclude two years of detailed negotiations, building on more than a decade of previous talks, could have collapsed into such a shambles. It is as though no preparatory work had been done.”

The decision to marginalize civil society and the secretive manner in which a handful of leaders struck the controversial“Copenhagen Accord” marked obvious ineptness and failures of process. But the shortcomings revealed by COP15 are far more fundamental than the particular maneuvering in Copenhagen.

The major actors continue to play a potentially fatal game of diplomatic hide and (not so much) seek. For years, the Europeans, Chinese, and Indians were able to hide behind George Bush’s climate denialism. In Obama’s Washington, that’s no longer so easy. And yet, Obama himself has in effect chosen to hide behind Congress—arguing that he cannot possibly make any commitments beyond what the Senate will endorse (while studiously avoiding the use of his bully pulpit to expand his domestic maneuvering space). The Chinese have been able to hide behind the West’s failure to put truly ambitious climate goals on the table and to acknowledge their climate debt to the rest of the world. The Indians, to some extent, hide behind China. The West, in turn, hides behind China and India’s recent and rapid emissions rise. And on and on and on…

With Copenhagen largely a failure, hide and seek is now turning into a blame game—all designed to shift responsibility to…someone else. This is largely driven by two factors:

  • One, a fear by any of the leading economies to be caught too far out on the climate limb, undertaking ambitious and initially costly measures while others choose the low road. In a world economy that has extensive rules governing trade, but precious few that address environmental needs, this is a real risk.
  • Two, the often corrupt domestic political processes that are driven by narrow corporate interests and short-term profit-seeking instead of the public good. This is expressed in two ways: one, the influence of corporate money on elected officials, and two, the ever-present threat to move factories elsewhere if environmental rules become too strict.

How to move forward from here? We should disabuse ourselves of the false hope that if political will couldn’t be marshaled this time, then somehow, miraculously, it will materialize at the next climate gathering. We’ve been treated to this kind of wishful thinking at Bali in 2008 and in Copenhagen in 2009, and there is no point in projecting such fanciful assumptions forward to COP16 in Mexico City in 2010.

For one thing, unless you subscribe to the “big man” theory of change that rests solely on the vision and leadership abilities of elites, political will does not materialize out of thin air. In large measure it depends on a vibrant public discourse, which in turn depends on bottom-up pressure and public awareness.  It is incumbent on environmental organizations to turn up the heat, especially in countries like the United States that continue to be laggards on the climate policy front.

But another huge part of the problem is the focus on emission-cutting burdens. As long as the options before us are portrayed in negative, undesirable terms, there is every incentive for government and corporate officials to limit their own commitments and undermine serious reduction goals.

While we cannot abandon the quest for a multilateral policy architecture that leads to meaningful, mandatory emission cuts and does so in a reasonably equitable manner, we need to think in terms of positive change in pursuit of an attractive, clean economy that works for everybody.

Let’s have a race for breakthrough innovations in renewable energy, energy and materials efficiency, in more intelligent and more livable settlement structures and transportation systems, and so on. Let’s understand that this is where the jobs of the future lie. Let’s devise ways to jointly develop and share climate-friendly technologies.

More ambitiously, let’s think creatively about the kind of economy that satisfies needs instead of creating endless wants, cultural change that combines material and spiritual wellbeing, and ways to revitalize communities.

In other words, we need a post-Copenhagen era, an episode, brought to you and me by the letter I—for inspiration, imagination, innovation. And that won’t happen without letter P—for public discussion, participation, and (bottom-up) pressure.

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Leonard Birahira is a recent beneficiary of Heifer International. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Leonard Birahira is a recent beneficiary of Heifer International. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the final in a four-part series on my visit to Heifer International projects in Gicumbi District in Rwanda.

Leonard Birahira has been connected to Heifer International in Gicumbi District for the last seven years, but only recently as a beneficiary of their projects. He’s been using his carpentry skills to help build stalls for farmers to keep their animals, a requirement for all Heifer beneficiaries, and just last month received his own dairy cow as part of Heifer’s projects  in Rwanda. Dr. Dennis Karamuzi, the Director of Programs for Heifer Rwanda, told me that he’s looking forward to seeing this family in two years. Right now they live in a mud house, without electricity or running water, things the other Heifer beneficiaries we visited were able to get after they began raising cows and selling milk.

And Heifer’s work is now being recognized—and supported—by the Rwandan government. In 2008 the government instituted the One Cow Per Poor Household Program, which aims to give the 257,000 of the poorest households in the country training and support to raise milk for home consumption.  But Heifer, says, Dr. Karamuzi, is also building an exit strategy by connecting farmers to cooperatives, which can organize and train farmers themselves.

For more on Heifer International’s work in Rwanda, please see the following links: Rwanda Sustainable Dairy Enterprise Development Project and Miracle Cows in Rwanda.

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Today, we posted an op-ed reflecting on the 25 years that have passed since Band Aid first sang “Feed the World”. Click here to read “Beyond Band-Aids for Hunger.”

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Vanishing FaceUltimately, one of the most important cultural changes needed is an understanding that we are part of and completely dependent on a living planetary system. This holiday season, I’m busy reading James Lovelock’s most recent volume The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Not the merriest holiday reading, I admit, but I did not encounter Earthscan’s new Christmas line up in time).

No, these aren't real books, but funny nonetheless!

No, these aren't real books–but funny nonetheless!

As Lovelock notes, our current understanding of climate regulation is shaped by our view that Earth is but a ball of rock rather than “a live planet that regulates itself.” Once we understand Earth in systems terms, we see just how dire the climate situation really is.

The idea that temperature will slowly and uniformly inch up—as is described in IPCC consensus models—is inaccurate according to Lovelock. Rather, we’ll hit a discontinuity where the system shifts rapidly from its current state to a “hot state.” As Lovelock explains:

“The atmosphere, whose physics [climate scientists] model, is not some simple gift of the Earth’s geological past; it is, apart from the 1 percent of the so-called rare or noble gases, entirely the product of living organisms at the surface. Much worse, these organisms, and that includes humans, are able to change their inputs and outputs of gases without letting [scientists] know. Today’s allies, the microorganisms of the soil and ocean who help to cool the climate, can become tomorrow’s enemies and add carbon dioxide instead of removing it.”

Lovelock’s ideas—perhaps because they’re complex and not reductionist like today’s science and because they’re outside the dominant cultural mythos (e.g. that man is separate from and above nature and not a mere organ of a larger entity)—barely penetrate the discussions even within the environmental community and have not been pulled into climate modeling on which IPCC projections are made.

So this is bad news to end 2009 with–even worse than the collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen. According to Lovelock, we’re dramatically underestimating what is necessary to “save” the planet (and by “save” Lovelock reminds us that we actually mean simply maintain the state which humanity has adapted to. Earth will do fine in a hot state; it is we and the countless other species that evolved for this climatic state that will decline or perish.) And worse, according to Lovelock, we may already have hit the point where this climate shift will occur and once it does it will be nearly impossible to shift it back to our current state—another complex idea made impressively approachable in this excellent animation by Leo Murray.

But Vanishing Face also reminds us that embedded in a culture of sustainability will necessarily be an understanding of our utter dependence on Earth and an understanding of it as a living complex system. What this specifically looks like will certainly vary across cultures—some may deify Earth as in millennia past, others may revere but not worship the planet, and others still may describe this dependence in purely intellectual and scientific terms—in “geophysiological terms” as Lovelock is fond of saying. But this is one cultural evolution that will surely be central to our survival as a flourishing part of Earth—whether in its current state or in a hotter one.

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Madame Helen has five cows and uses methane from their manure to cook all her meals with a biogas stove (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Madame Helen has five cows and uses methane from their manure to cook all her meals with a biogas unit (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the third in a four-part series on my visit to Heifer International projects in Gicumbi District in Rwanda.

In addition to milk and income, dairy farmers also get another important resource from their cows—manure. While raw manure can be composted for use on crops, cow dung can also be a source of fuel for households.

Madame Helen Bahikwe, another farmer in Gicumbi District, began working with Heifer International in 2002. She now has five cows—and an excess of manure. With a subsidy from the government as part of the National Biogas Program, Madame Helen built a biogas collection tank, which allows her to use the methane from decomposing manure to cook for her 10 person family. She no longer has to collect or buy firewood, saving both time and money and protecting the environment. The fuel is also cleaner burning, eliminating the smoke that comes from other sources of fuel.

And according to Mukerema Donatilla, another farmer we met, biogas “helps with hygiene” on the farm because they can use hot water to clean cow udders before milking and for cleaning milk containers.

Both Mukerema and Madame Helen had to contribute about $USD 700 for the materials to install their biogas units, while the government contributed about $USD 400. With funding from SNV, a Netherlands-based organization and the Rwanda Ministry of Infrastructure, the government hopes to have 15,000 households in the country collecting and using biogas by 2012.

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