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Biogas can help reduce methane and black carbon emissions while producing cleaner fuel for cooking, lighting, and electricity. As an alternative to burning polluting wood, dung, or fossil fuels for household energy, biogas could help slow climate change, improve global health, reduce agricultural losses, increase energy access, and improve people’s lives and businesses. However, it is currently an underutilized technology. An estimated 30 million households in Africa could use a biodigester but less than one per cent of that number actually has one.
To help fix this problem, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is supporting a variety of efforts around the world to investigate the role biogas technology can play to help reduce methane and other air pollutants, and achieve the Global Methane Pledge goal to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030.
Using biogas digesters...can significantly reduce air pollution in individual homes and communities and provide them with a cleaner source of energyJohn Mitchell
Biogas is made when biomass, such as organic waste, manure, food waste, and agricultural residue, is fermented or put through anaerobic digestion. When put in an oxygen-free environment, waste is broken down and produces gas that is 50-75 per cent methane. This fuel can be burned for refrigeration, cooking, heating, lighting, and can generate electricity to supply power grids— a critical resource in energy-poor areas in Africa, Asia, and South America.
John Mitchell, from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and Co-Chair CCAC’s Household Energy Hub says providing access to cleaner and less polluting forms of energy is critical to address climate, environment, gender, health, and livelihood inequities in households and communities in many low-to-middle income countries.
“In rural and agricultural communities that currently rely on burning of biomass for cooking and heating, switching to biogas can help reduce both indoor and ambient air pollution,” Mitchell said. “Using biogas digesters to turn cattle dung and crop residue that would otherwise be burned in the fields, into energy can significantly reduce air pollution in individual homes and communities and provide them with a cleaner source of energy.”
Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the World Biogas Association, says using biogas digesters can help reduce the climate impact from increasing volumes of organic waste.
Biogas can improve the quality of life for people in the remotest villages in the world as it can operate at all scales.Charlotte Morton
“Humans generate over 105 billion tonnes of organic waste globally every year, releasing harmful methane and other greenhouse gas emissions as they decompose. By recycling all 105 billion tonnes, biogas can reduce global GHG emissions by 10% and deliver 50% of the Global Methane Pledge by 2030. However, today only 2% of organic waste is treated and recycled,” said Morton.
“Biogas can improve the quality of life for people in the remotest villages in the world as it can operate at all scales. Household waste can be turned into clean energy that would displace the use of biomass, reducing black carbon emissions and saving millions of lives.”
Alexander Eaton, the CEO of Sistema.bio, a biodigester social enterprise, that CCAC Partners are working with in Kenya to measure the climate, health, and gender co-benefits of clean cooking interventions, said bio gas can help achieve climate and development goals.
“Biogas development is one of the single most effective development solutions because it is supporting waste treatment, energy access, human health and agricultural productivity,” he said. “The climate benefits of biodigesters are really clear, proven and supported by all the major methodologies.”
Livestock manure is another significant source of methane emissions, and Eaton believes that smallholder farmers in the global south can play a key role in achieving the Global Methane Pledge .
Biogas development is one of the single most effective development solutions because it is supporting waste treatment, energy access, human health and agricultural productivity.Alexander Eaton
“The challenge is that it’s hundreds of millions of cows but spread out over hundreds of millions of farms— and those emissions are significant. So, we capture that raw manure fresh every single day, convert it into energy, which people can use to cook their food, heat their water or run an engine,” Eaton said. “The reason biogas is so interesting is because the process of destroying methane produces energy, so it doubles the climate benefit.”
Sibusisiwe Madyangove, a dairy farmer in Zimbabwe who is participating in a biogas program run by the Dutch Development Organization (SNV), installed a biogas refrigerator in her house to keep her milk cold. The refrigerator is critical for her dairy business as she delivers 45 to 60 liters of milk to her customers every day.
“Looking at the fridge in my house I feel happy and relieved. Nothing goes bad as I always have power thanks to my cows. I am happy with my herd,” Madyangove said.
She also has a cooking stove that she powers with biogas and says that it makes cooking much easier for women, as they don’t have to spend time and energy collecting firewood. Finally, she makes organic fertilizer from manure through her biogas system, increasing her yields and decreasing the need for irrigation.
“I won't stop encouraging farmers to join the biogas program so they can live easier lives, like we are doing,” she said. “When I look at my herd, I realize I have a good life and money.”
About one-third of the world’s population— some 2.8 billion people— don’t have access to clean cooking fuels and technology, meaning they’re still cooking and heating using wood and manure, releasing toxic air pollutants into their households and the atmosphere.
Biogas in those settings can replace fuels such as wood and charcoal, reducing black carbon emissions and forest degradation. Greenhouse gas emissions from cooking with non-renewable wood fuels amount to about a gigaton of carbon every year, or about 2 per cent of global emissions. Reducing emissions from cooking around the world can play a part in achieving the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to 1.5˚C.
Switching to cleaner forms of fuel can also save lives. The World Health Organization estimates that each year approximately four million premature deaths worldwide are caused by high levels of indoor air pollution from burning solid and fossil fuels for cooking, heating and lighting. Women and girls are disproportionately affected because they tend to spend more time at home caring for children and cooking, and often bear the burden of collecting firewood and other types of fuel. Sistema.bio research has found that with their time freed up from collecting wood, women can invest in creating small businesses and even taking on increased leadership roles in their community.
Initial findings from a World Bank case study in Kenya found that people who had independent access to biogas were isolated from some of the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic supply chain disruptions and the effects of lockdowns, suggesting that access to biogas could be an important way to increase the resiliency of the poorest households who suffer the worst effects of global crises.
The CCAC and its partners are launching a set of tools to improve measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) in the cooking and household energy sector. These tools will help the 67 countries that included clean cooking targets in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Biogas could be one strategy to help them achieve those targets while also reducing methane emissions and air pollution.
The CCAC is also working to reduce the burning of crop residue in Punjab, India by identifying exactly where and how much crop residue is being burned. This knowledge can help determine sources and volumes of organic waste to produce biogas and which bioenergy technologies are the most feasible and effective. The work aims to help the Punjab government achieve its goal to produce 600 megawatts of power from biomass by 2022.
Biogas is not just a climate and clean air solution for developing countries. US dairy farmers are shoveling a combination of food waste (often gathered from local grocery stores) and manure into anaerobic digesters which convert it into renewable energy that can be fed into the electricity grid.
The United States currently has 317 anaerobic digestion systems that use livestock manure to create energy. The AgSTAR, a program sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture estimates that it could be used at over 8,000 large dairy and hog operations to generate nearly 16 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy per year, while also improving air and water quality for nearby residents.
A barrier to implementing biogas solutions is the expensive upfront investment it requires for manufacturing and maintenance. While biodigesters will save households money by reducing energy costs long term, households relying on inefficient cookstoves tend to be extremely poor with little to no disposable income and certainly very little investment capital.
Companies like Sistema.bio solves this problem with small loans and flexible payment plans so that farmers can pay in installments. They will sometimes further defray the costs for poor families with carbon financing or government funding. Sistema.bio has found that families can get a return on investment as high as 300 per cent over five years.
“There's growing recognition of the premium that should go to support these projects, given how important methane could be in terms of the overall strategy for fighting climate change,” said Eaton. “It’s a short term opportunity to stave off some of the worst climate affects. My hope is that people recognize how impactful biogas projects can be.”
The World Biogas Association notes that there are many things governments can do to help biogas reach its full potential. This includes actions that will benefit the global energy transition like putting in place a robust carbon price, removing fossil fuel subsidies, incentivizing renewable energy, and including biogas targets in energy and climate plans.
Managing food waste is also key, and a focus of the CCAC’s Waste Hub. Policies in this sector include separate food waste collections for citizens, ensuring there are food waste requirements for businesses, improving sanitation infrastructure, and specifying anaerobic digestion as a preferred method for treating organic waste.
Biogas can make important contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 2 of Zero Hunger by increasing agricultural productivity and decreasing food insecurity through the production of biofertilizer, SDG 13 on Climate Action by burning methane from organic and animal waste, and SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy by increasing access to renewable energy.
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