Even with the Paris Climate Agreement stepping into global limelight, brandishing its sword like a knight in shining armour come to save princess Earth from its tragic plight, it was probably a mere byplay for a majority of Sri Lankans. The fear of falling prey to the Dengue mega epidemic and the dilemma of garbage disposal, had occupied the minds of many Sri Lankans so much so that many of them were oblivious to the heating up of political, industrial as well the environmental platforms in the outside world. Little do they realise that it would make a world of difference to find the ‘missing link’ between these two scenarios.
Paris Agreement comes under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was put forward with several aims such as keeping the global temperature levels just 20C above pre-industrial levels, decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigation and adaptation to climate change and low GHG emission development and climate resilient development.
A notable number of conventions, agreements and protocols regarding climate change, global warming and GHG, which had eventually become the hot topics in the many international platforms currently, had sprung up time to time at various cities around the world, presenting varied results. But apart from having 7 areas in Sri Lanka declared as Ramsar Wetlands, phasing out CFC gases in refrigerators and air conditioners and few other such results, the above mentioned names are, for some Sri Lankans, mere phrases in an Environmental Studies school textbook. For a greater fraction of the population they make less sense than gibberish. In such a set up how could Paris Agreement be any different?
Paris Agreement is relevant to our country for the same reason it created such political turmoil – the withdrawal of US from the Agreement. Heedless of the strong condemnation of European Union and many sectors of United States and environmentalists worldwide, the reason put forward by President Trump for this action was that this withdrawal is going to help American business and workers, especially those in the fossil fuel industry. USA having being declared the 2nd highest GHG emitter in the world, second to only China. The reason for this huge amount of GHG emission of US, 14.3 per cent of Global GHG emission, is obvious when looking at US’ major energy source – fossil fuels. Eighty one per cent of power that goes into mundane running of vehicles, lighting and air-conditioning, running industrial scale machinery is generated by fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and petroleum.
Fossil fuel attributes to 50.27 per cent of the total energy consumption, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators (2014).
Although fossil fuels take up the largest chunk of pie chart Sri Lanka’s GHG emission is at a level so low that it is almost negligible. Of course, there are other gases that qualify as GHGs, such as Methane, Nitrous oxide, Chlorofluoro carbons and other activities that generate and emit GHGs such as Agriculture and biomass burning, fertilizer use and refrigeration. This is why industrialized Western countries have been pointing their finger at Asian countries with extensive agriculture, accusing them of being the biggest GHG emitters. This has been proved a false accusation, with much scientific research bearing evidence.
That is where USA’s decision becomes a matter of concern for our country. As mentioned when the concentration of CO2 and other GHGs increase the amount of solar energy retained in the atmosphere increase making the Earth’s surface warmer, which is referred to as the greenhouse effect. However, the Earth has developed the neat mechanism referred to as carbon sinks, a mechanism which absorbs excess carbon, to address this issue.
The remarkable fact is that Sri Lanka possesses two major types of carbon sinks – the lush tropical rainforests and the vast blue oceans. The rich floral communities of rainforest are natural air purifiers which absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the process of photosynthesis and store that carbon as biomass which we later harvest as fruits, leaves and wood through the process called Carbon Sequestration.
In the same manner, the oceans around the island absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is sequestered by the phytoplankton in the water. But the problem arises when excess carbon is pumped into the atmosphere at rates which these carbon sinks cannot cope with; especially with exponential increase in consumption of fossil fuels after the industrial revolution.
The gravity of this issue is apparent when weighing the invaluable resources that these carbon sinks have to offer against the toll excess carbon takes on those resources. One such impact is the increased levels of carbon dioxide absorbed by oceans turning ocean water acidic resulting in the slow death of one of Sri Lanka’s major tourist attractions, the coral reefs. Once coral reefs are destroyed, the fish which make these reefs their home lose their habitats, resulting in the decline of populations of many fish species. This in turn has a considerable impact on fisheries, one of the major livelihoods of people in our country.
Apart from this there are a number of indirect impacts of excessive fossil fuel burning. For example, fossil fuels contain a lot of impurities which emit a number of toxic by-products such as methylmercury and sulfide. Apart for the obvious respiratory illnesses, these toxic chemicals enter the marine food web where they accumulate in fish, referred to as bioaccumulation, and enter to human body through food chains in increased concentrations, referred to as bio-magnification. This is a very disturbing revelation especially for countries as Sri Lanka where marine fish is one of the major protein sources in the daily diet of the majority of the population.
The tragic fact is that although highly industrialized countries such as the US are the greatest fossil fuel burners and greatest GHG emitters, countries like Sri Lanka that contribute the least to it, are going to pay the price. We are the ones who are going to lose our rainforests and the rich, endemic biodiversity they cradle. We are the ones who are going to lose our tourist attractions and fisheries resources which bring a good part of the country’s foreign income. We are the ones who are going to have our food poisoned.
But what can we as a country do? We cannot demand developed countries to reduce fossil fuel consumption. We cannot expect the whole world to stop using vehicles, electricity and everything that requires burning fossil fuels. This is where the ‘missing link’ comes in, the missing link between the Paris Agreement and Sri Lanka’s burning issue of inefficient garbage disposal.
The code which can decipher this missing link is none other than the concept of clean energy. Clean energy involves the production of energy from renewable sources such as solar power, wind, hydropower and organic matter. The generation of power by renewable sources is in a somewhat satisfactory state in Sri Lanka with renewable energy output taking up 3480 units of the 11901 total energy output with major renewable energy sources being hydropower and solar power.
Although amply available, solar power is not that popular owing to the lack of knowledge among the general public and the huge capital required for the initial setup of home scale solar power panels. Electricity generation using hydropower has also raised a few concerns such as socio-economic impacts (land acquisition, displacement of people) which arise with the establishment of large scale hydropower plants. The destructive impact of mini-hydropower plants on the endemic freshwater fish population is another rather disturbing concern. Bioenergy, renewable energy produced by organic matter, can prove to be the precious missing link to unravelling this crisis.
Municipal waste is the main source of garbage in Sri Lanka. A very large fraction of municipal waste includes food waste, which is organic matter, which has the potential to be an invaluable resource in the process of bioenergy generation. When organic matter breaks down in the absence of oxygen, in the presence of decomposing microbes referred to as anaerobic digestion, a mixture of gases are produced.
One may question the suitability of this process to address the issues created by fossil fuel burning because; anaerobic digestion of organic matter also produces the very same GHGs – methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. But the difference between these two processes is that anaerobic digestion of organic matter does not produce these gases in such excessive amounts that natural carbon sinks cannot handle. These gases referred to as biogas can be combusted in the presence of oxygen to produce energy.
It is indeed unfortunate that the biogas and waste energy consumption in Sri Lanka is recorded as zero per cent, especially at a time when the world is facing an energy crisis and Sri Lanka is facing the dilemma of garbage disposal. If the organic waste collected in each household could be converted to biogas, it wouldn’t be long before organic waste, the greatest nuisance in every household would be treated as the greatest fortune.
Every now and then, various policies and plans had been presented by the government and various private entities, to put this theory into practice as a solution for the municipal waste problem. How and when these projects would be implemented is beyond the control of a layman. But the build-up of municipal waste in front of one’s doorstep, emitting unpleasant odour and providing the ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, is certainly a layman’s concern. So it is the general public who are best suited to put this plan into action, not in island wide scale, but at home scale.
Producing biogas at home scale, using organic waste is not rocket science even for a housewife or a high-school kid. All it takes is selection of correct containers to be used as digester tank and the gas collector tank, fix inlet and outlet pipes and a bit of animal manure to speed up the anaerobic digestion process. Some internet based research offers a wealth of extremely comprehensive information on biogas production at home, aided by step-by-step guidelines with videos and diagrams.
Animal manure, especially cow dung contains a rich mixture of microbes that act as excellent catalyst for microbial digestion of organic waste. The gas produced can be stored in the collector tank through the outlet pipe. From the collector tank the gas can be easily channelled to the kitchen burner or stove in a manner safer than when using compressed natural gas.
Apart from successfully addressing the issues created by burning of fossil fuel and garbage disposal, this method has several other advantages, such as, cutting down of LP gas cost and a byproduct which makes good organic manure.