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Creating Carbon-Negative Communities:  Ecovillages and the UN’s New Sustainable Development Goals

Creating Carbon-Negative Communities: Ecovillages and the UN’s New Sustainable Development Goals

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The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and its many ecovillage communities have long striven to be good planetary citizens and to live in ways that are as sustainable, nurturing, and harmonious as possible. We are now working to help achieve the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement; and you can help too. The SDGs were adopted by the UN last September. Many describe them as the most ambitious and inclusive set of goals to which the UN has ever agreed.

The SDGs include 17 primary goals and 169 more specific targets. They encompass such objectives as achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all; ensuring access to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services; doubling agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale farmers; implementing resilient agricultural practices while strengthening capacity for adaptation to climate change; doubling the global rate of energy efficiency; ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all; and sustainably managing and efficiently using natural resources—all by 2030.

These intentions are certainly challenging, but achievable if we set our hearts and minds to it. Ecovillages are already showing how these goals can be met.

GEN and the UN

I have represented GEN at the United Nations for the past 15 years. I have lived in an ecovillage community, and in my career as an educator and activist visited many more. During that time I have come to recognize ecovillages as among the most sustainable communities on earth. I have also become familiar with the UN’s new SDGs, having participated actively in the meetings at the UN that developed them and evaluated how they could be achieved.

GEN and our ecovillage communities are already well on our way towards helping the UN and the world’s people to reach these targets and goals. For example, many ecovillages are leaders in developing and using organic farming, regenerative agriculture, biochar and carbon sequestration, biological waste treatment processes, natural building practices, and innovative means of producing renewable energy.

I joined a GEN delegation that participated in the UN’s Climate Summit in Paris in December, and helped to put together a special website for it, looking at how ecovillages are helping to address and prevent climate change. I want to share with you some of the many ways that ecovillages around the world help create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world and ways in which you and your community can participate.

Transitioning to Clean and Renewable Energy

Goal 7 of the SDGs calls for ensuring access to and substantially increasing the share of renewable energy. The world community is finally taking notice and investing in the transition to a truly renewable energy future, but we still have a long way to go. According to REN21’s 2014 report, renewables contributed 19 percent to our global energy consumption in 2012, but almost half of this still comes from burning fuel wood. More than a billion people still lack access to electricity. And an estimated seven million people die each year from indoor air pollution from cooking and heating fires—mostly women and children. It is thus a challenging goal but one that can definitely be met.

Dyssekilde Ecovillage in Denmark provides one example of what we can do. Almost all of the houses have a greenhouse built in on their south-facing wall. Passive solar heating is particularly efficient in houses with brick or other dense walls that absorb the heat, shortening the active heating season by a month both in autumn and spring.

When the ecovillage first started, wood was a popular fuel as it was relatively cheap, easily obtainable, and, when sustainably harvested, CO2-neutral. Many of the older houses are therefore heated by wood-burning mass ovens—heavy brick or stone ovens in the middle of the houses. They are fired once a day to very high heat, which gives a cleaner combustion and less pollution. The brick or stone then absorbs the heat and slowly releases it during the day. These ovens typically utilize 95 percent of the biomass energy and are thus ideal for home heating in Scandinavian and other cold climates. Many also have built-in ovens for baking and cooking.

When the Dyssekilde community built their communal house they decided to heat it with geothermal energy. This system works by absorbing heat from the ground via long tubes dug approximately 1 meter into the earth. These are filled with water and an anti-freeze solution. Electricity provided by wind power runs a compressor that boosts this relatively low heat to 30-40 degrees C, which is then used to heat floors, radiators, and tap water. Many houses also have solar water heaters on the roof. Finally, in order to be self-sufficient they built the first windmill in the area in the mid-1990s. Communally owned, it produces two and a half times the electricity needed for houses in the village. (See www.dyssekilde.dk/uk/node/126.)

Increasing Productivity and Income with Solar Dryers

Hakoritna Farm in Palestine has had great success with solar dryers. In Palestine, farmers cannot export their products because of the checkpoints and separation wall. Given the nation’s minute size, farmers’ livelihoods are compromised as fruits and vegetables of the same variety ripen simultaneously, often flooding the market and driving down the price farmers can ask for their crops. Farmers therefore reap insufficient profits to cover their input and labor, especially when the produce is organic. But by installing solar dryers they are able to preserve vegetables and fruits for the winter, thus getting a much better price and increasing food sovereignty.

People used to put produce on rooftops to dry but would have to take it down at night; and if it rained all could be ruined. The solar dryer makes things easy. It is essentially a plastic sheet tunnel with solar-driven fans to maintain the right humidity. The fruits can dry in just a day.

(You can read more about Hakoritna Farm in Palestine, along with many other ecovillage success stories, in GEN’s new book Ecovillage: 1001 Ways to Heal the Planet, available on the GEN website at www.ecovillage.org/node/5746 and on the FIC website at www.ic.org/community-bookstore/product/ecovillage-1001-ways-to-heal-the-planet; it is also reviewed on page 80 of this issue.)

The Tamera ecovillage in Portugal has also been using a solar dryer that has proved itself many times over. Similar solar dryers are also used by fishermen in Bangladesh to dry fish, farmers in Togo for bananas, and merchants in China for spices. One half of the floor of the tunnel-dryer is painted black and serves as the “collector.” Here, solar radiation is transformed into heat. The air is heated and thus has a lower relative humidity. A fan then blows the air across the goods to be dried, where it absorbs moisture. The sunlight falling on this drying area helps to vaporize moisture in the food. Because the fan (in the far triangular end of the tunnel-dryer) is powered by a photovoltaic (PV) module, the interior temperature can be kept constant. (You can find a detailed guide on constructing a solar dryer at www.solare-bruecke.org/Bauanleitungen/Tunneltrockner_dt.pdf.)

Biogas Digesters Can Be Cheap and Easy to Build

At Tamera, they have also built several biogas digesters that run almost entirely on kitchen and garden scraps from the community. With biogas from the first two they are able to cook on one burner for 10-20 hours a day. They estimate that this type of a system is 400 times more effective than a system using cow manure. With biogas, the kitchen can remain in service through the rainy winter season, during which time direct solar power is not sufficient. They are now planning to power a refrigerator and a generator with biogas. (See www.tamera.org/project-groups/autonomy-technology/biogas.)

T.H. Culhane from SolarCITIES helped Tamera construct and install the digesters. He has worked for years with the local people in the poorest neighborhoods of Cairo, Egypt and in other African countries to develop decentralized solutions for energy supply. They use what is available—buckets, plastic canisters, hoses, old gas cookers—to assemble a whole system: the biogas digester, an attached gas reservoir nearly as large as the digester, the inlet for kitchen waste, the outlets for gas and liquid fertilizer, and the cooker and other devices that use the gas. (See solarcities.blogspot.com.)

Cleaning Up Charcoal and Creating a Mini Grid in the Developing World

The European Union provides funding for a number of highly successful ecovillage climate projects in Tanzania that utilize multi-sectoral interventions. Zanzibar Community Forests International has assisted villagers in using a new method to produce charcoal, replacing the traditional earth mound technique with a low-cost retort kiln, doubling production efficiency. It takes half as much wood to produce the same amount of charcoal—and in turn consumes only half as much forest. This process cuts production time in half and reduces emissions up to 75 percent. (See forestsinternational.org/innovation/post/can-we-answer-tanzanias-charcoal-question-one-small-answer-at-a-time.)

In Tanzania, only 14 percent of the people have access to electricity. So they set out to design an electricity system for the island of Kokota in Zanzibar, spanning the entire island and empowering every single inhabitant. This meant providing electricity to over 80 homes and three public buildings. With no previous access to electricity, Kokota’s energy demands were simple: people wanted electric lighting so they wouldn’t have to keep buying and burning kerosene, and to charge their mobile phones. They figured out that a week’s worth of energy to meet basic demands for a single household could be stored in a small motorcycle battery. So the community generates renewable energy collectively at a central location and then distributes it via a fleet of small carry-home batteries—a “portable” microgrid. (See forestsinternational.org/innovation/post/how-do-you-build-your-own-portable-microgrid.)

Sequestering Carbon and Improving Soil Health with Biochar

A number of ecovillages have also been experimenting with and offering workshops on making and using biochar and on building biochar pits, kilns, or wood stoves. Not only can biochar dramatically cut down on carbon emissions, it can also help to sequester vast amounts of carbon in our soils, while restoring soil health and increasing productivity.

In regions as diverse as the high mountain valleys of Costa Rica and the agricultural fields of western Kenya, biochar cookstoves are now being used to both clear the air and enrich the soil. Biochar is a type of charcoal produced when biomass burns in an oxygen-free environment. It can boost water and nutrients in dry, depleted soil while serving as a vehicle for burying the carbon that contributes to global warming.

At The Farm ecovillage community in Tennessee (US), they have been regenerating and replenishing depleted topsoil by putting biochar and compost tea into the soil using a keyline plow, which cuts into the soil surface without turning the earth. A rich loamy soil, up to a meter deep, can be restored in a matter of years.

In Germany’s ZEGG ecovillage, the soil is sandy so they decided to use biochar (terra preta) to improve the soil quality in their gardens. Terra preta (literally “black earth” in Portuguese) owes its name to its very high charcoal content, and is made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil over many years.

They built and use a Kontiki steel kiln at ZEGG to make the biochar, and have figured out an ingenious way to charge it. Biochar is extremely porous. It absorbs water and nutrients and can thus deliver them to the plant root zone. But if it is not charged by soaking with either liquid nitrogen or a compost tea, or being mixed into a compost pile, biochar soaks up, holds, and thus depletes the land of available nutrients.

At ZEGG they wanted to lower the nitrogen and phosphate levels in their wastewater to improve the quality of their outflow water. They discovered that urine has the highest content of nitrogen and phosphorus, much more than human feces. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the nitrogen we shed and 50 percent of phosphorus are in the urine. So they started soaking biochar with urine from their waterless toilets in barrels for approximately four weeks. They then use composted leaf earth, clay, bokashi, grass clippings, and charged biochar in layers to set up a compost stack and let it sit covered for a year before putting it into their gardens. (See Terra Preta Production, Part II: Waterless Urinals—Charging Terra Preta at ZEGG, sites.ecovillage.org/article/terra-preta-production-part-ii.)

You will find many articles, videos, and instructions on making and using biochar on the GEN climate website at www.ecovillage.org/COP21 or more directly at ecovillage.org/node/5998.) Numerous organizations and businesses are also listed on the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves website that sell biochar cookstoves or help communities make and install them. See cleancookstoves.org (enter biochar under search).

According to a National Geographic news article entitled “Biochar Cookstoves Boost Health for People and Crops,” three billion people worldwide rely on highly polluting open-fire cookstoves. The article goes on to say that a Seattle, Washington-based company, SeaChar, is testing a new style of clean cookstove that produces biochar. It can be built using local materials: a five-gallon steel paint bucket, some corrugated steel roofing material, and half of a one-gallon tomato sauce can.

In addition to wood, the stove burns garden debris, dried animal dung, corncobs, and coconut husks. A family cooking a pot of beans will use 40 percent less wood with this Estufa Finca stove than with an open-fire stove, while showing a significant reduction in exposure to harmful smoke. These stoves reduce particulate matter emissions by some 92 percent and carbon monoxide emissions by 87 percent. SeaChar offers a biochar buyback program too, through which households can earn an extra $15-20 per month by selling the biochar produced by their cookstoves—a huge boon in the developing world. (See news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/01/130129-biochar-clean-cookstoves.)

So by making biochar and investing in cleaner energy production we can achieve many of the UN’s SDGs: improving soil health, increasing agricultural productivity, reducing hunger, reducing water pollutants, and improving human health; while reducing carbon emissions, sequestering carbon, and reducing deforestation.

These are just some of the best practices and success stories being carried out in ecovillages that can help us deal more responsibly with the climate crisis while also achieving the SDGs. You can find many more examples and details under Success Stories at www.ecovillage.org/cop21.

Rob Wheeler has represented the Global Ecovillage Network at the United Nations for the past 15 years. He has participated actively in the global Earth Summit Conferences in Rio de Janeiro, in Johannesburg, and the annual meetings of the UN’s Commission and now High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York. Rob used to live at the Heathcote Ecovillage Community in the US, and has worked for more than 25 years as a teacher and environmental educator. He co-organized and led a Sustainable Community Campaign in Santa Cruz County in California for five years in the 1990s and has been a peace, environmental, and political activist and organizer for most of his life. Every year he joins millions of people around the planet in celebrating his birthday, or rather Earth Day, on April 22.

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