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Capturing Pig Power

The Kyoto pact puts nearly 600 projects in the developing world. One example: energy fueled by hog waste.

February 12, 2006|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

VILLAGRAN, Mexico — Georgina Cano had long resigned herself to the stench from the hog farm just up the road from her rural home.

Stagnant lagoons of waste from thousands of squealing pigs fouled the air for miles in this flat stretch of central Mexico. Cano's three children complained and occasionally fell ill, but she figured it came with living in a region that produces much of the nation's pork.

Last year, the smell diminished even as the hog production continued.

"Now I hardly notice it," said Cano, 37, gesturing toward the low sheds about half a mile from her home. "It's healthier for the children."

Cano's family and neighbors can credit a little known Irish company for helping them to breathe easier these days.

Thanks to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on climate change, efforts by industrialized countries to fight global warming are popping up in far-flung places like Villagran, a hamlet about 40 miles southwest of the city of Queretero.

Nearly 600 Kyoto-related projects are in the pipeline in the developing world, according to a recent tally by a Danish climate research center funded in part by the United Nations. About 40% of them are in Latin America, including hydroelectric power plants in Honduras and wind-powered turbines in Chile.

The accord, which the United States has not ratified, calls for reducing overall greenhouse-gas emissions by major industrialized countries in the period 2008-2012 to amounts at least 5% below 1990 levels.

More than 150 nations have signed and ratified the treaty, but the burden to reduce emissions falls on about three dozen industrialized countries responsible for most of the climate mess. One way for industrialized countries to meet their reduction targets is to support environmental projects in developing regions. Dubbed the Clean Development Mechanism, it was designed to lower compliance costs for rich nations while funneling much-needed development to poor ones.

The climate agreement set up a trading system -- administered by the U.N. -- in which the rights to spew pollutants can be bought and sold like stocks. That has spurred interest from entrepreneurs who are funneling money into environmentally friendly projects in exchange for anti-pollution credits.

Each credit represents the equivalent of a ton of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere. Although registries for these and other types of emission credits still are being set up by the U.N., buyers and sellers already are making deals.

AgCert International, the Dublin, Ireland-based company that installed clean-up equipment on the hog farm near Cano's home, has made commitments to provide nearly $90 million of emission credits to European utility companies and petroleum producers to help them meet their reduction goals.

Chief Executive Gregory Haskell, an American and serial entrepreneur with no previous agriculture experience, calculated that more that 1 billion credits would be required to satisfy Kyoto obligations. The opportunity to fill some of that demand led him to found AgCert in 2002.

"We looked for what the need was in the marketplace," Haskell said.

In Latin America, AgCert has installed pollution-control equipment on about 230 hog and dairy farms in Mexico and Brazil, according to company officials. AgCert hopes to have more than 1,000 facilities operating by the end of 2007 in those nations as well as in Chile and Argentina.

Haskell said about 7% of the world's production of greenhouse gases could be attributed to large animal feeding operations, which produce several harmful byproducts, including methane.

AgCert replaces open waste lagoons with pits that are lined and covered with a plastic that traps gases emitted by decomposing waste. The gases are piped out of the pit and burned off in a combustion unit that looks like a giant torch. The gases also can be used to fuel generators to provide electricity for the farm, similar to the manure-powered city of Bartertown in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the 1985 film starring Mel Gibson.

In addition to providing renewable energy and reducing emissions by around 95%, the system keeps animal waste from leaching into the water table while greatly reducing the foul smell. The process also yields organic fertilizer that farmers can sell or use on their crops.

AgCert pays for the construction and equipment, which averages about $150,000 a farm, and takes care of all maintenance for 10 years.

The company also is working out a formula to give farmers a share of the revenue from sale of the emission credits, said Hernan Mateus, the company's general manager in Mexico. He said the projects gave jobs to local construction firms and made neighbors living downwind very happy.

"Everybody wins," Mateus said.

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