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How a Cookstove Becomes a Carbon Credit

| Thursday May 24th, 2012 | 3 Comments

To make a cookstove into a carbon credit is one serious abstraction, isn’t it?

Take a region where charcoal is the cooking fuel of choice, switch it out for a cleaner burning fuel that doesn’t contribute to global warming quite so dramatically, then, somehow, track the whole thing accurately enough that it’s possible to measure the tons of emissions the switch represents.

Finally, sell the avoided tons on a carbon market to companies that are looking to offset their own over-indulgence or maybe organizations that want to be carbon negative, doing their part to reduce global warming. The calculations had better be accurate or else those credits will not be worth very much in the long run.

At their best, cookstove carbon credit projects like these are lauded for their co-benefits – not only do the cleaner stoves reduce the global warming potential of the cooking method, but they also reduce soot which means lower asthma rates (and cleaner homes – of great benefit to the women who have to clean up after dinner). Done right, a project like this can even jumpstart a new local sustainable business like CleanStar Mozambique.

However, the reputation of these types of projects has suffered in recent years due to allegations of double-counting by both the organizations that buy the stoves and the organizations that deliver them. Market participants have been subject to tough questions about how many of the delivered stoves are actually in use, how many actually replaced a dirty charcoal stove instead of another cooking implement, and how long the stoves actually stay in use. Are the credits still being counted long after the stove has been abandoned? These questions mostly plague the voluntary market, where there are many standards, but little overall regulation.

Offsets destined for the compliance markets – like the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, or the market that’s being set up in South Korea now that they’ve passed a cap-and-trade law, are heavily regulated by the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which certifies the credits that are traded on the state-run markets. Says Abyd Karmali, Global Head of Carbon Markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, “The CDM compliance is what makes these credits reliable because they have such a thorough review process.”

Karmali represented Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the deal that brought them to the CleanStar Mozambique team. BofA’s seven-figure investment gives the bank the option to buy a guaranteed volume of credits created by CleanStar Mozambique’s stove program at a reduced cost. “Of course, we take a risk with this investment like any other – the CDM certification may not come through, or the stoves may not sell at the projected rate. The risk/reward calculation is the same for us in the carbon market as it is in any other business unit.”

Despite that modesty on Karmali’s part, BofA’s investment made a huge difference in the overall profitability of CleanStar Mozamibque’s business plan. A project in subSaharan Africa which spans the length of a country, engaging hundreds of farmers in growing cassava, building an ethanol plant, and selling stoves to thousands of urban customers is going to be a bit precarious. BoA’s investment means that Cleanstar Mozambique can sell their ethanol stoves at a reduced rate – $30 dollars instead of their $80 at cost – which brings them within spitting distance of the cost of the charcoal stoves which are currently being used by 95 percent of the market.

Now for the million dollar question: How do they actually calculate how many stoves equal a carbon credit?

Charcoal stoves contribute to global warming in two ways – first, when trees are clearcut to create charcoal (it takes 10 kilos of wood to make 1 kilo of charcoal), carbon that was once embedded in the trees drifts into the atmosphere. Second, there are the emissions from the stoves when they’re lit to cook a meal. CleanStar Mozambique’s methodology addresses both.

The man at the center of CleanStar Mozambique’s methodology is Boris Atanassov, a soft-spoken Bulgarian who was raised in Mozambique, who patiently walked me through his calculations, results, and the cross-checks in place to make sure his figures are accurate.

The deforestation component of the calculation relies on figures from external sources. First CDM requires the applicant to confirm that the forests in question are not being harvested renewably (if they were, they wouldn’t represent a carbon discharge). The government of Mozambique and numerous NGOs have documented those numbers and there are currently no significant efforts in place to reforest.

The second portion of the calculation focuses on the ethanol stoves being sold in the city center, presumably to women who were otherwise using charcoal. That’s where Atanassov’s methodology comes into play. His team set up a comprehensive series of tests and crosschecks to measure their assumptions about stove and charcoal usage.

First, they measured charcoal use in 421 households in Maputo and determined that the daily use was around 2.8 kilograms per day – almost twice their initial estimates.

The team also tested the efficiency of the charcoal stoves with a water-boiling test to determine the average efficiency of a Maputo charcoal stove. This is helpful information in cross-checking the amount of charcoal needed to cook the average meal.

When CleanStar Mozambique sells a stove, it educates the customer on the fact that these stoves are being used for carbon credits. The purchase price includes a warranty and CleanStar requires the buyer to sign an agreement that they’ll return the stove for repair or replacement if it breaks within five years. Customers are informed that they are receiving the stoves at a discount because of their agreement. This gives the team extra assurance that stoves will remain in use – even if they do break.

Once the stoves are in use, the team conducts surveys and in-house studies of the ethanol stove users to see if they are using the stoves exclusively or as only one of several cooking implements at their disposal. Just as we might use a frying pan on a gas grill for one sort of food preparation and a microwave for another, some families are using the ethanol stoves as only one cooking implement among many. The rate of actual usage gets incorporated into the methodology.

All the elements of the methodology use conservative numbers, and they’ll all be sent to CDM for carbon credit approval, which can take six months to a year or more. Approval looks promising, though, since the methodology is so comprehensive.

For more information about the CleanStar Mozambique project, click here.

Travel and accommodations provided by Novozymes
Image credit: Jen Boynton


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  • Dmcc

    Great article! How is carbon released from cutting trees, rather than just when the tree (wood or charcoal) is burned? Does the calculation take into account the decrease in potential CO2 absorption from the loss of the tree?

    • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

      Yes exactly – the tree acts like a sponge absorbing C02 over time, so one component of the calculation is the loss of the absorption. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more severe when you’re dealing with clear-cutting than when you’re dealing with a single tree being felled. The forest ecosystem itself has some CO2 absorption capacities (smaller plants, active soil) in addition to those of the individual tree. 

      So, there’s the loss of the potential future absorption and then there’s the loss from the carbon embedded in the individual tree being turned into smoke. I was worried about the potential for double counting, but the experts assured me that each component of the emissions is factored in only once and the methodology includes lots of additions and subtractions to account for how each component influences the others. 

  • http://twitter.com/iSOLABELLA Isolabella

    Wonderful article! Now, if only Boris Atanassov could run for President of the U.S.!