Climate finance must add up

Posted October 8, 2010

One of the most contentious issues at the global climate talks taking place this week in Tianjin, China continues to be finance: how to fund efforts to adapt to climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The global financial crisis has made these discussions even more challenging as developed countries like the U.S. struggle with rising deficits. To move the discussion forward, the U.N. established a High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Finance (AGF) last year, which will present a report at the COP 16 climate talks in Cancún, Mexico in December.

Prior to the Tianjin meeting this week, IATP published a paper outlining our concerns with carbon markets as a reliable source of climate finance. Earlier today, IATP joined over 25 civil society organizations in Tianjin in expressing grave concern that the AGF “is not going to support the type of solutions that will truly benefit developing countries and communities living in poverty.” In a letter to the co-chairs of the AGF, the groups wrote that:

  • Pledges for climate finance are not enough of what is required.
  • Public finance should be prioritized over private finance.
  • Multilateral development banks should not serve as a channel for climate finance.
  • And, carbon markets lack the necessary reliability to be considered a valid source of climate finance.

You can read the full letter here.

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IATP at Tianjin climate talks: Carbon markets not reliable

Posted October 7, 2010

IATP co-hosted a side event at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate negotiations in Tianjin, China earlier this week. Below are the remarks of IATP President Jim Harkness. Other speakers at the side event included Nick Berning and Karen Ornstein of Friends of the Earth along with a Bolivian UNFCCC delegate on how carbon markets are being treated in the negotiations.

These remarks are also available to download as a PDF on

Carbon markets:
A reliable and practical source of climate finance?

Remarks of IATP President Jim Harkness at the UNFCCC climate negotiations in Tianjin, China. Presented October 5, 2010.

Thank you for joining us today. My name is Jim Harkness.

I am the President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. We are a 25-year-old organization that works locally and globally to ensure fair and sustainable

food, farm and trade systems. We are based in the United States, with offices in Geneva, Switzerland. And we have representatives on our board of directors from Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands.

We’re here to talk about financing for adapting and mitigating climate change. Most of us believe that we will not have a meaningful climate deal without a clear system of finance in place to invest in a low-carbon economy and adaptation. We are at a critical juncture in this discussion. As you know, a draft decision on a climate finance fund is expected in Tianjin. Also, the Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (AGF), which was formed after Copenhagen, will be presenting a draft report on climate finance shortly after Tianjin and a final report before Cancun.

Much of the discussion in Copenhagen, and throughout the climate debate, has focused on carbon markets as a primary source of climate finance. Of the $100 billion a year by 2020 committed to “be mobilized” by developed countries within the Copenhagen

Accord, much of that climate finance is expected to come from carbon markets. Many have argued that carbon markets are necessary because developed countries no longer have the public resources for climate finance. It’s important to note that one reason developed countries are facing such financial constraints is the recent bailout of the financial services industry following a decade of its deregulation and spectacular

near-collapse. We are deeply concerned that the global community is now being asked to trust this failed and unrepentant industry—which has fought regulation following its bailout—to provide adequate climate finance through carbon trading. We believe that carbon markets will not result in reliable and timely financing for the critical projects around the world that are needed to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, having studied the role of poorly regulated financial markets in the global food crisis of 2007-08, we are concerned that such markets will not only shift the burden of mitigation

to developing countries, but will also adversely affect food security, and undermine many important efforts to deal with both climate change and rising global hunger.

Carbon and agriculture markets are tied together through futures markets. Big financial firms, many represented here in Tianjin, have positioned themselves to invest in carbon derivatives. These derivatives would be based on the value of carbon emissions permits—given to industry by governments—and of carbon offset credits. And these carbon derivatives could bundle together permits and credits with each other and with other commodities, such as oil or agricultural futures contracts.

Carbon derivatives would be created and traded under regulations that oversee all commodity futures contracts, which include agriculture, metals, energy and oil. And here’s the crux of the problem. These commodity futures markets have experienced a decade of regulatory exemptions, exclusions and waivers that have led to excessive speculation by big Wall Street players. The result has been enormous price volatility and harm to many around the world.

Excessive speculation by big financial firms, like Goldman Sachs, on commodity futures exchanges are now well recognized as major contributors to the global food crisis of 2007-08. The U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a recent FAO committee report on agriculture price volatility and the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food have all stressed the need to address excess speculation on these markets by big financial firms.

How do these firms distort futures markets and what exactly are the effects? The big financial firms use two key tools to game the system. One, commodity index funds bundle together up to 24 futures contracts for all types of commodities. So, within one fund you might have derivatives for corn, gold and oil all together. Because financial firms, unlike commodity users, are not limited in the number of contracts they can hold, financial speculator “weight of money” (the sheer size of their holdings) drives the prices of the indexed contracts. As these contracts are sold and new contracts are bought, the “weight of money” induces enormous price volatility, far beyond what can be explained by commodities supply and demand. This price volatility is also replicated in global food prices—this is devastating for poor consumers and for the small farmers who produce most of the world’s food.

Carbon derivatives could also be bundled within a commodity index fund. The price effect of bundling contracts of consumable commodities and those of carbon, a wholly artificial and legislated commodity, can be difficult to predict. Legislation that allows the unlimited “banking” of carbon emissions permits could result in a periodic flooding of the market with permits. The resulting price drop would undermine the environmental objective of raising carbon prices to induce long-term industry investments in clean technologies. The current practice of trading carbon offset derivatives before the offset projects are verified to have reduced greenhouse gases could likewise result in price volatility, if the carbon asset underlying the derivative turns out to be fraudulent.

What would happen to agricultural contracts tied directly or indirectly to the vastly capitalized $2 trillion carbon market of 2017 forecast by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under a mandatory U.S. carbon market scenario? The mostly likely outcome is that the bigger market drives prices in the much smaller agricultural markets. If agricultural futures prices return to their 2007-08 volatility, net import food–dependent developing countries would be unable again to forward contract food grains at reliable prices, leading to increased food insecurity.

A second way speculators take advantage of exemptions from commodity futures market rules is through over-the-counter (OTC) trading. These are unregulated private trades between firms, rather than trading on public and regulated exchanges. By trading over the counter, these financial firms are able to avoid regulatory scrutiny since OTC trade data are not reported daily to regulators,

as is required of regulated exchanges. By claiming that OTC trades are “customized” and that the data is confidential business information, OTC traders gain an unfair price information advantage over public exchange traders

OTC trading is already common on the European Emissions Trading Scheme—accounting for 44 percent of all carbon trades in 2008, according to Point Carbon. Trading under the ETS has resulted in high volatility and low carbon prices. Low and volatile prices have not has spurred big emitters to invest in greenhouse gas–reducing technologies and practices, as required by the ETS legislation.

UNFCCC Parties will be asked to consider adopting another variant on carbon trading as a major source of climate finance currently pushed by one of the largest carbon trading lobbies. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) is made up of over 170 financial, law, energy and manufacturing companies. They are leading advocates for carbon derivatives. Their most recent proposal for financing is something called green bonds. We believe green bonds are also extremely vulnerable to excessive speculation.

Under the IETA proposal, financial firms would loan developing countries money—through a green bond—to engage in a carbon-reduction project. The carbon credit that would result from that project would serve as the collateral for the bond. IETA proposes that international financial institutions guarantee project loans in case of a developing country default.

Once again, if a carbon market is highly volatile, the developing country may not be able to cover that loan through the sale of carbon offset credits or other revenues. So, we have a scheme that puts developing countries into debt while guaranteeing the investment of financial firms. All under the guise of addressing climate change.

On the issue of climate finance, we need to start a new conversation and be open to new proposals and ideas. We need to answer such questions as: Who should provide the financing to address climate change? Who oversees that money and decides how it is spent?

We believe that those who are largest polluters historically have a responsibility to be the largest source of climate finance in accordance

with the convention—and not just countries, but polluting industries as well. There are a variety of taxes being discussed including carbon, transportation and financial taxes. Those should all be on the negotiators’ table.

It is absolutely essential that climate finance investments do not undermine food security, e.g., by displacing farmers from their land. Our goals should be exactly the opposite: to support sustainable agriculture that improves our ability to adapt to climate change, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases food security and strengthens rural livelihoods.

We strongly oppose the World Bank’s involvement in controlling a climate finance fund. This proposal would divorce climate finance from the normative and technical agreements of the UNFCCC—a grave mistake. The World Bank has an unfortunate history in its involvement with the Clean Development Mechanism and other climate related projects—as well as being a leader in pushing for deregulation in the finance sector.

Instead, we believe the Adaptation Fund, within the UNFCCC’S Kyoto protocol, is the appropriate place for climate finance funds to be held and distributed. We also support the establishment of a new fund under the convention, as proposed by developing countries.

We are interested in working with others to develop new, creative ideas on climate finance. We believe that new approaches to climate finance will only succeed in addressing climate change if they are consistent with the convention and are transparent, inclusive and equitable.

We have materials on the table that go into more depth on the issues I’ve discussed today. You can find all of our materials on our website: Thank you! 

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Debating climate finance in Tianjin

Posted October 5, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness and Senior Program Officer Shefali Sharma are in Tianjin, China this week monitoring the ongoing global climate talks that will serve as the final prelude to COP16 in Cancún later this year.

In a side event held today,Tianjin climate talks entitled “Carbon markets: A reliable and practical source of climate finance?” IATP hosted a panel to discuss public finance mechanisms, market and environmental integrity in carbon trading, and consequences for sustainable agriculture. A press conference will be held on Thursday.

IATP's Senior Policy Analyst Steve Suppan has also written a new paper addressing the U.N. Secretary-General's High-Level  Advisory Group on Climate Finance (AGF), entitled "Trusting in Dark (Carbon) Markets?" Read the press release below:



Climate finance can’t afford carbon markets

Influence of market speculators too risky for the future of the planet


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Farmers' new normal

Posted September 29, 2010

While floods from earlier this summer have receded in Iowa, rivers are bursting in Minnesota from last week's downpour of rain. Flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather over the last few months has had a devastating affect on agriculture in the U.S., Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, China and elsewhere. These weather events are consistent with global climate change—and they are not waiting for a new global climate treaty, or a U.S. climate bill.

In a commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, IATP President Jim Harkness writes about the need to include farmers—on the front lines of extreme weather—in developing climate policy. Jim and IATP's Shefali Sharma will be in Tianjin, China next week at the UN climate talks, connecting with more farm organizations concerned about climate change. Read the full commentary in the Star Tribune.

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Trouble Waters' balancing act

Posted September 24, 2010

The University of Minnesota back-tracked yesterday on its decision to stop the premiere of the documentary “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story” on October 3 at the Bell Museum. IATP, the Land Stewardship Project, and dozen other Minnesota groups called out the U (see our letter and press release) for what appeared to be an attempt to staunch academic freedom. The film explores the connection between agriculture and pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The U’s reasons for trying to stop “Troubled Waters” are still not entirely clear, although Agriculture Dean Allen Levine at one point said the film “vilifies agriculture” and that he considered it unbalanced.

Bringing “balance” into the equation when you’re talking about agriculture and the Mississippi is more than a little ironic – our industrial agriculture system is the definition of unbalanced. The way we produce corn and soybeans requires vast quantities of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, a lot of which, along with sediment, get washed out of farm fields, trickle into the Mississippi, and eventually wash into the Gulf of Mexico. The end result: a river and its tributaries contaminated with high levels of nitrates, atrazine, and other health- and eco-hazards, and a dead zone in the Gulf the size of Massachusetts (this year).

What’s curious about Dean Levine’s statement is that the film, in fact, highlights the efforts of Minnesota farmers like Tony Thompson who are working hard to decrease their impacts downstream. From riparian buffers, to cover crops, to more perennials, to better calibrated fertilizer application – there are lots of ways farmers can decrease the nutrient load they send down the river. This, one would think, would be exactly the kind of important, “balanced” information the U would want to promote.

We’re still waiting to hear if the film will be shown as previously scheduled on Twin Cities Public Television on October 5, and we’ll continue to insist on transparency from the U around this and similar decisions in the future. In the meantime, if you're in town, get your tickets to the show, they’re going fast. See you there.

By Julia Olmstead

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Flooding might be the ‘wave’ of the future

Posted September 2, 2010

This commentary by IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney originally appeared in the Ames Tribune. It is republished with permission.

“Living with floods involves two broad activities: better managing the risks and taking steps to reduce our vulnerability, and better managing the landscape to reduce the magnitude and destructive power of floods.” — Connie Mutel, Epilogue, “A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.”

In the spring of 2010, The University of Iowa Press published “A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.” Connie Mutel edited this outstanding book. It should be required reading for those concerned with policymaking to address our recurring big floods. But we continue to battle day-to-day and event-to-event. Iowa State University officials talk of shoring up University Avenue in Ames, and the university and businesses clean up the damage. Who’s really hurt are the hundreds who have major property damage; basements, valuables and feelings of security are destroyed.

Are the Iowa cities that sit on large- or medium-sized river basins doomed to relive the experience of large floods regularly? No matter how much infrastructure we build to withstand the onrush of streams and rivers, flooding might be the “wave” of the future. In June 2008, the rivers of eastern Iowa created floods of epic proportions. In August 2010, the rivers of central Iowa did the same. What is going on? After the unprecedented statewide flooding of 1993, Iowans assumed we had seen the worst and returned to business as usual. How wrong can we be?

Rivers are not static. They are constantly eroding and reshaping their channels. When water flowing into the river exceeds the capacity of the channel, rivers use the naturally created floodplain to store the extra water. When rivers are denied access to the floodplain, or structures are built in the floodplain, we have a flood. Floods are natural, part of the water and biodiversity cycles. When we get in their way, damage occurs.

The climate of the Corn Belt is conducive to violent weather: high winds, tornadoes, blizzards, drought and intense rainfalls. The rainfalls seem to be the cause of much of our angst, especially recently. Reasons for the “unprecedented” floods include the possibility of major climate shifts, changes in land use, especially in agriculture, and lax urban building codes and poor storm management. I will take a quick look at these as space permits.

Probably the most sensible way to avoid flood damage is to get out of the way. But cities are not easy to move. Removing homes and businesses is a slow, expensive process, complicated by the private property ownership and by a multitude of government regulations. When public buildings are involved, such as Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and Hilton Coliseum in Ames, public funds must be used to restore the buildings, diverting resources that are desperately needed for education and research.

A recent news release indicated a new Hancher will be built, presumably out of harm’s way, and Hilton Coliseum and presumably also the Scheman Center will be protected by higher flood barriers (levees), though the latter is not clear.

ISU’s proposed solution—deny the river its flood plain—is not really a solution. No doubt this would lessen flood damage to the ISU complex, but it would certainly increase flooding in other areas of the flood plain with unpredictable results. The river will have its way.

A better alternative, but one that might now be impractical, is to increase storage on the land. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, and I discuss this approach in chapter 24 of the book I referred to earlier. Most of the watershed above Ames is agricultural. It has been altered in ways that lower the retention of water and hasten flash floods. Tile drainage, wetland and prairie destruction, stream channeling, and, of course, the annual corn and soybean cropping all hasten the movement of water through the watershed.

Similarly, Ames, and most other cities, was not designed with floods in mind. Water runoff must be decreased relative to infiltration in both urban and rural landscapes. Our manicured, reconstructed lawns are nearly as impermeable as the concrete they drain into.

Changing our urban and rural landscapes is daunting. Some regions have gone together to plan for flood mitigation. A regional flood control effort for the Story-Boone County region could identify new roads and bridges that could be designed to provide storage and locate flood plains where flood levees could be removed, giving the river a chance to recover its flood plain.

Finally, are flood frequencies and intensity partly a result of climate change? Eugene Takle examined this question in a remarkably clear manner in his chapter of the “Anatomy of the Floods” book mentioned previously. Cedar Rapids’ average annual rainfall has increased more than 9 inches over the past 113 years and now stands at 37 inches per year. More rain is falling in the late winter, spring and early summer and rainfall events are becoming more intense. These trends were predicted by climate models, and they likely will continue in the foreseeable future. Takle writes that “the dice have been loaded toward a higher probability of extreme flood events.” Now with three major floods in 17 years, it would seem public and private decision makers should take heed.

In summary, floods will happen. Climate change will likely cause further increases, and our rural and urban landscapes have been so modified as to make lessening the impacts of floods difficult. History tells us we will recover from the floods, get enough federal aid and insurance money to repair the damage, and move on with little thought to the next flood. We deserve better.

Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at

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Floods, droughts and famines

Posted August 31, 2010

In the late 1870s, a series of droughts and famines devastated a broad swath of the globe, including what is now Pakistan. The 1876-78 drought killed 6 million people in India; in China, 12 million people died of starvation and disease. Many millions more were plunged into agonizing poverty. The story of the famines and their connection to extreme weather are the subject of a 2001 book by University of Southern California professor Mike Davis, entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World

In the late 19th century, El Nino cycles were not understood. Today, the world is witnessing the accelerating pattern of extreme weather events, like the floods that have engulfed Pakistan.

What Davis tells us is that the suffering and deaths that occurred were not caused by weather but the colonial and free trade policies of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. In the midst of mass starvation in India, basic food exports continued to flow to England. As whole communities perished, Indian peasants were taxed to pay for British wars against Afghanistan. British policies in India were predicated on the population theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, who was employed by the British East India Company—too many people, too little land, too little food—a description better suited to England.

Today, the flood victims in Pakistan were poor and hungry before the rain started to fall and the rivers and canals overflowed their banks. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the population of Pakistan lives on under $2.00 a day. For many years after partition from India, Pakistan was making strides in its development, but the combination of military dictatorships, corrupt governments and Cold War proxy wars (and now counter-terrorism campaigns) have left Pakistani peasants destitute and under siege.

What is new—and what was unknown at the end of the 19th century—was that the industrial system, then in its infancy, would lead to global warming and extreme weather events. From Katrina to the overflowing Moscow morgues, the industrial model that causes extreme weather is also responsible for exhausting the people, land and resources of the world. When the two meet the consequences are disastrous.

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Climate, agriculture and immigration

Posted August 6, 2010

Two of the biggest hot button issues in Congress this year have been climate change and immigration. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the two issues are linked.

Researchers from Princeton University conservatively estimated the future impact of climate change on the yields of Mexican-grown corn and wheat. They looked at migration data in Mexico from 1995-2005 (the ten years following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement). After accounting for a number of variables, they concluded that a 10 percent reduction in crop yields would lead to an additional 2 percent of the Mexican population emigrating. Depending on how fast or slow climate change occurs, the result could be between 1.4 and 6.7 million Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result of declines in agricultural productivity.

While this research focuses on Mexico, there is little question that migration driven by a decline in crop yields is a big issue in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa, India, Bangladesh, and Latin America, according to the researchers.

The debate in Congress over climate change was dominated by the costs of implementing various strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. Less discussed were the costs of inaction. Perhaps this is why Congress failed to act.

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UN General Assembly declares access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation essential

Posted July 29, 2010

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that "the right to drinking water and sanitation was essential for the full enjoyment of life."

The resolution was introduced by Bolivia, and was co-sponsored by 39 countries.1 There were 122 states in favor, 0 opposed and 41 abstentions.

This declaration by the general assembly is an important step towards the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and will strengthen the rights already established in General Comment 15 on the right to water. General Comment 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 160 States.

Interpreting the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified (in 2002) that the use of the word “including”2 indicates that the right to an adequate standard of living is not limited to food, clothing and housing. It indicated that the right to water is also included within the right to an adequate standard of living since water is fundamental for survival. Since 2002, when the general comment was adopted, a large number of states have accepted the view elaborated in General Comment 15 that the right to water is legally binding. However, a few countries led by the United States have so far prevented the recognition of right to water in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, which operate by consensus.3

Yesterday's unanimous declaration by the UN General Assembly will give a boost to those governments that have made an effort to recognize water as a basic right, and to other multilateral efforts to promote the  realization of right to water and sanitation.

This is indeed a huge step forward.

However there is much more to be done. The first step, of course, is to make the right to drinking water and sanitation a reality. This is particularly true for rural areas where 84 percent of water poor live.4 While the resource requirements for meeting the drinking water needs of 884 million people and sanitation related water needs of 2.6 billion people are well within the collective means of our 21st-century world, water remains a mirage for the water-poor. A commitment to help realize the right to water on the part of the rich governments of the world could help save the lives of 1.5 million children under age five who would otherwise die from water-related illnesses. To help meet Millennium Development Goals on water (to halve the number of water poor by 2015) poorer countries need a mere $18.4 billion annually, which they are hard pressed to raise. Yet we have seen that bank bail-outs of much higher magnitude come about easily.5

Equally important is recognizing that the realization of several other rights, such as right to food and right to livelihood, is contingent on reliable access to water. This is especially true in the case of the large number of rural people who are directly dependent on land-based activities such as agriculture, animal grazing and other related activities for meeting their food needs. Climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact these peoples’ food security. Ensuring clean water to help them realize their right to livelihood is of utmost importance.

At the moment, it is commendable that the declaration acknowledges "the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights."

A universal recognition that extends this by acknowledging "the importance of equitable, clean water as an integral component towards the realization of all human rights, especially right to food, and right to livelihood" would be of additional help, especially in the changed context of climate crisis.

1. Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, The Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eritrea, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Yemen 

2. In Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...”

3. Afshaq Khan, e-mail communication, July 2010.

4. World Bank: Global Monitoring Report 2010, The MDGs after the Crisis,


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China's pollution census, manure and biogas

Posted July 19, 2010

In February of this year, the Chinese government released results of the first national pollution census (全国污染源普查). The most startling finding of this nearly three-year, 737 million RMB investigation was that agriculture is a bigger source of water pollution in China than industry. Because agriculture had never before been included in official pollution measures, the finding that farming is responsible for 44 percent of chemical oxygen demand (COD—the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67 percent of phosphorus discharges and 57 percent of nitrogen discharges was big news. The New York Times and The Guardian published articles on the Chinese pollution census.

In addition to fertilizer-, pesticide- and herbicide-containing runoff from crop fields, the census found that manure from livestock and poultry farms is a major source of agricultural pollution. An article this week in the China Daily further details animal waste problems, citing incidents of blue-green algae outbreaks in lakes and waterways because of excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen fromIMG_5521

livestock farms. The photo to the right is an example of this phenomenon near a commercial pig farm I visited in Sichuan Province. Given the lack of effective water treatment methods and facilities, combined with the ever-increasing scale of livestock production, this is indeed a serious problem for China to address.

In response to the census, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is promoting biogas digesters as a possible solution to the current “manure problem.” The ministry is currently executing and administering a $66.08 million (USD) loan from the Asian Development Bank to expand the use of biogas technologies. By 2020, plans are to construct an additional 80 million household methane digesters and 10,000 large-scale biogas plants. These projects build on technologies that have been used in China for decades. (Here is a report by Professor Li Kangmin and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho that gives a brief history of biogas use in China, dating from the late nineteenth century.)

The concern is scale. According to a water expert at the Asian Development Bank, presently less than 1 percent of the 4.2 million large-scale pig, cattle and poultry farms use biogas digesters to process manure. As these commercial farms follow the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model by packing more and more animals into smaller and smaller spaces and continue to take an increasing share of production and markets, surely they are the operations to watch—and to regulate. But to date, biogas digester projects have focused on small-scale production. The MOA estimates that 35 million of the 140 million rural households were using digesters at the end of 2008. While digesters can bring certain benefits to rural communities, particularly production of cooking gas and nutrient-rich fertilizer, these small-scale farms are not the ones contributing most to the manure-in-water problem.

The real challenge for addressing manure-based water pollution comes from the rivers of waste running out of commercial livestock farms and directly into bodies of water. If biogas digesters are to be the chosen path to correct this ill, perhaps there should be a mandate that all new CAFOs (and there are new ones coming into production all the time) must install digesters from the beginning. At the same time, the existing 99 percent of commercial farms that don’t already use them should be urged to do so.

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

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