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From mobile solar to low-risk homes, climate action is underway - UN

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 6 November 2013 14:00 GMT

A bamboo bicycle, built in Ghana, is one of the innovations recognised as a "lighthouse" project for reducing climate-changing emissions and adapting to climate change by the UN Climate Change Secretariat. Photo: UN Climate Change Secretariat

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UN climate negotiations may lack ambition and needed speed, but innovative grassroots efforts to cut emissions and improve adaptation are making a difference on the ground

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When remote mining camps in Mongolia’s south Gobi desert need energy, they rent diesel generators. But rented solar arrays can provide energy 30 percent cheaper, while producing no carbon emissions, an entrepreneur says.

The solar rental model, with no upfront investment costs, makes “a solar farm cheap up front and cheaper to run. The payback time is zero. You immediately start saving from day one,” said Erwin Spolders, whose mobile solar rental company, France-based Redavia, is about to place its first solar arrays in the Gobi and at a Tanzania gold mine.

The emissions-reducing project is among a range of “lighthouse” efforts – from cheap disaster-resistant housing in India to sustainable bamboo bicycles in Ghana - being promoted by the UN Climate Change Secretariat to show that innovative action on climate change is taking place, despite slow progress in the formal UN climate negotiations, which resume in Warsaw next week.

The effort aims “to expose the misperception… that transformational change is too expensive, that it’s too difficult, that now is not the right time because we’re in an economic crisis,” said Kelly Rigg, chair of the advisory panel for the Momentum for Change project. “The fact is it’s already happening all over the world.”


The highlighted projects focus on a range of efforts to reduce emissions and help communities better adapt to climate change impacts. In Gorakhpur, India, for instance, a community-based climate resilience project has come up with a design for a flood-resistant brick home that costs only about $2,500 – about a third of the normal cost of a brick home – while using 54 percent less cement and 18 percent fewer bricks.

The house, set on a two-foot-high base, was developed with input from the frequently flood-hit community, and is also designed to resist earthquakes and to promote airflow in a region where summer temperatures often top 40 degrees Celsius. The architects have produced a manual that they said will allow local residents to build the homes for themselves.

They say the UN recognition of their project should assist them in getting the word out about the possibilities of climate-resistant architecture to a wider audience.

“Up to now we’ve been doing these small projects which generally stay under the radar, so very few people get to know about them” said Sumeet Agarwal, an architect with SEEDS Technical Services, a consultancy that works on reducing disaster risk and building environmental sustainability.

Now, the recognition “will help popularise these projects, and other people around the world will get to learn from it and replicate it,” said Agarwal, one of the developers of the new house.


Many of the projects were selected specifically because they have the potential to be taken up in other parts of the world, Rigg said.

“If you added them all up individually, they’re not going to be more than a drop in the bucket,” she admitted. “A lot are very small and local. But they have the capacity to be scaled up and replicated in other places.”

Also, for the most part, “these countries are not the big emitters now, but they are the ones of the future, as they move out of poverty. If we can help stave off the potential increase in emissions by showing alternative ways of developing, that’s pretty exciting.”

Spolders, CEO of the mobile solar company Redavia, said he believes transportable rental solar arrays could supplement diesel generator installations around the world, from remote industrial facilities to hotels and resorts. Towns on small islands – which often get their power from diesel generators – are also prime candidates for solar arrays, he said.

Such arrays would not entirely replace diesel generation, as they cannot work at night or during bad weather. But by supplementing diesel, they could lower costs and emissions, Spolders said – and the rental model makes sense for companies without the upfront cash to pay to buy solar or pay it off over a long time period.

His company estimates the global market for rental solar at $7 billion a year, and suggests the technology could be cost effective in many places – apart from those where diesel fuel is subsidised.


Another project among those recognised this week, from countries as diverse as Guatemala, Sudan and the Philippines, is a community-driven effort to reduce the disaster risk from cyclones and flooding in Bangladesh.

The project, in which women took the lead, involved tapping into local knowledge and homegrown adaptation efforts with the aim of producing more effective adaptation to worsening storms and floods, said Farah Kabir, the country director of ActionAid Bangladesh.

“The realisation for us was that a lot of the interventions planned did not incorporate local knowledge and understanding. But from our conversations, it was evident (local people) did understand the changes and were looking for solutions,” she said.

Working together, the community and aid group came up with some innovative adaptations, including an underground concrete bunker, with a raised entrance, that could be used to protect key possessions such as seeds for replanting and land deeds.

The community also set up a “knowledge hub” of expertise in which kinds of seeds to plant in differing conditions and how to cope with cyclones, to protect local knowledge and help transmit the best of it to other communities, Kabir said.

But she warned that such adaptation projects, while useful, will not be enough to cope with coming climate impacts if progress is not made at the UN climate talks to limit emissions of climate-changing gases and ensure that poorer countries get the funds they need to develop cleanly and protect their communities.

“The fundamental problem is there is a limit to adaptation,” she said. “That is why we need these international negotiations.”

Right now, “countries that have almost negligible emissions are suffering climate-related disasters and changes. And there’s only so much we can do with local knowledge and understanding. We also need technology transfer and financial resources.”

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