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How the Poor are Saving the Planet (and What You Can Do, Too)

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Suzanne Chew

While many of us are procrastinating over just what low-carbon lifestyle changes we could make, many villagers in developing nations are simply getting on with it. How? Through clean cookstoves, energy from waste, community renewables and other simple, effective choices. 

Clean cooking for moms


Lao PDR (Laos) is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia, filled with running rivers and mountains. It’s also a country where, according to the World Bank, 30 percent of the population live in poverty,

A local nonprofit, the Association for Rural Mobilization and Improvement, in collaboration with international NGOs Oxfam and SNV, is working hard to bring clean cookstoves to villages across the country. How are they doing it? By training resident artisans to manufacture these stoves using local materials, and creating networks of villager-entrepreneurs to market them all across the country.

The results have been impressive. As of mid-2015, villagers have purchased over 50,000 of these “Super Stoves.” There’s even a cute mascot and a cookbook of local recipes designed just for these stoves.

Super Stove! The Lao Cookbook: People and their Stoves

Super Stoves use around 20 percent less fuel, compared to traditional stoves. This means fewer trees chopped down, less fuel burned, and a savings of up to 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions each year for every stove.

What else? Faster cooking times, less money and time spent on getting fuel, and best of all, less toxic black smoke inhaled by moms and kids in the home.

This isn’t just happening in Laos -- clean cookstoves are a global phenomenon! There are stoves that can charge your phone while you cook, like Biolite’s stoves in Africa, or larger stoves designed for mom-and-pop eateries, like Sustaintech’s award-winning tea stoves being used across India.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, part of the U.N. Foundation, reports that in 2014, over 12 million household clean cookstoves were distributed worldwide. The organization aims to grow this total to 100 million households by 2020.

Poo power to the rescue!


Over in Vietnam, small farmers are putting poo to good use, through the installation of household biogas digesters to generate energy from waste.

How does it work? These digesters use a simple brick design for airtight domes built into the ground. Underground pipes channel waste from chickens and pigs directly into the dome, where waste is digested by bacteria over several weeks.

As biogas is produced, pressure builds up in the dome. This pressure pushes the trapped biogas out through plastic tubes, which are connected to everything from gas burners for smoke-free cooking, infrared heaters for keeping baby chicks warm, to gas lamps for studying at night!  Each digester works to cut 5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. 

What's the bonus prize? Modern toilets! With a biogas digester, women and girls no longer have to wait until dark to relieve themselves out in the woods. Around two-thirds of homes with a digester in Vietnam also choose to build and connect a toilet, keeping women healthy and safe.

The National Biogas Program, managed by the government, has successfully constructed over 145,000 digesters. Similar biogas programs run in many other countries, including Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia, China and India.

Villages, everywhere!


Communities are choosing clean energy through micro-hydro schemes or solar photovoltaics. They’re choosing clean lighting through buying solar lamps, and clean water through buying ceramic water filters that don’t need fuel for boiling.

Clean water, clean electricity and clean cooking – good for the village, good for the planet!

What about me?


Just like what’s happening in these villages, many everyday actions that are good for the planet are also good for us. Less red meat? Good for our hearts. Less vehicle pollution? Good for our lungs. Less energy wasted in the home? Good for our wallet. Less climate change? Good for us, great for our kids.

Today, it’s never been easier, or more fun, to get going! Start with three easy steps:

1. Get up to speed!

Forget about the doom and gloom headlines. Head instead to NASA’s excellent climate resource website.  Catch documentaries like 350.org’s rousing “Disruption” or “Switch," a practical documentary on the energy transition we need to orchestrate.

Enjoy cartoons? “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption” is a new book of cheeky cartoons that cover the science, impacts and solutions, based on the latest United Nations climate reports.

2. Start talking about it!

One reason why so many of us might still question climate change is because so few of our friends and family actually talk about it! Research by Yale University in 2015 found that only 1 in 25 Americans hear people they know talk about climate change once a week.

Research on “cognitive dissonance” also found that what we think about climate change depends on how it would affect the relationships we hold dear. If choosing to act on climate change means betraying our cultural values and the people we share these with, research finds that most people might find it easier to just stay silent.

The good news? The more we hear about climate change from people we connect with, the more we start to take it seriously!

That’s what More Than Scientists, an initiative by The Climate Change Education Project, does. Climate scientists are at the forefront of understanding just how we are changing our planet. First and foremost though, they’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Just like us. Choose from over 200 videos to hear these scientists speak from the heart about what it all means to them.

3. Take everyday action!

There are many simple ways to get started, and you don’t have to go it alone! Join your local green group, or grassroots organizations like 350.org. Take part in the global movement that is Meatless Monday. Work with your neighbours to start recycling. At home, make it fun for the family to reduce food waste, start doing the laundry on a cold cycle and grow your own vegetables!

We’re all part of the problem, but you know what? This also gives us the chance to be part of something bigger! Right here, right now, there’s still time to act for a brighter future.

What about you? How are your actions part of the solution too?

Image credits: 1) Courtesy of SNV Laos 2) Courtesy of the National Biogas Program of Vietnam 

Images from “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption” by Suzanne Chew, the "Improved Cook Stoves Programme Laos PDR" and "The National Biogas Program of Vietnam". All images used with permission.

Suzanne Chew is the author of “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption”, a fun book of cartoons with everything you need to know about climate change. She is also the Founder of Little Climate, an initiative to build climate change awareness in creative ways. Suzanne has worked in the climate change sector since 2007, and was previously the Director of a non-profit focused on low-carbon projects for poverty alleviation in Asia and Africa. She has a double Masters in Physics and Environmental Technology from Imperial College, London.

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