The phrases climate change, going green and eco-friendly have been flung around the developed world for decades, but it’s only in recent years that more developing countries have been catching on. Cambodia is one country that is leading the way.
Climate change, pollution, environmental devastation and health risks are all real dangers in today’s world. While many more developing countries are embracing change and actively implementing energy-saving and efficiency schemes, the majority of the ASEAN region lags behind.
In Cambodia, around 71 percent of energy is sourced from biomass fuel, according to the Group for Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES), mainly in the form of wood, charcoal and rice husks. This is having a devastating impact on both climate and health, as well as posing a threat to the environment through deforestation. Reducing the often-heavy carbon footprint is fast becoming a priority.
Inconspicuously sat on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is a small factory silently chugging away. Inside, the only evidence that charcoal is being made are a few towering piles of small chips of waste coal and piles of neatly stacked black blocks. The hands of the Cambodians working on the production line remain clean; their work clothes bear none of the usual sooty stains expected from working with coal.
Since 2008, Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) has been producing environmentally friendly char-briquettes from rice husks, coconut shells and recycled charcoal. Figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveal more than four million of the three billion people burning biomass on open fires and simple stoves to cook and heat their homes die every year. Add to this the fuel being used widely across Cambodia, and SGFE wanted to create a greener alternative.
“More people die every year from indoor air pollution than malaria and HIV put together,” Carlo Figa Talamanca, SGFE CEO says. “This figure is startling. While SGFE’s fuel is still charcoal, because of the composition it creates less smoke and is much better for both the environment and health.” He adds that as it contains 30 percent less volatile matter, it burns for substantially longer than normal charcoal and creates no sparks, thus improving safety levels.
“Of course, the most important thing for us is the environmental impact, which our customers don’t really understand,” Figa Talamanca says. When he took over in January 2012, he had to shake-up marketing tactics. “If we tell people living in the provinces that it creates less sparks so is less likely to cause a fire to their home, they say they’ve been doing this for years and never had a fire. If we tell them it creates less sparks so won’t burn holes in their clothes or creates less smoke so they don’t have to clean their homes as much, they’re interested.”
Deforestation is a huge issue across Southeast Asia. According to non-governmental organisation Wildlife Alliance, 73 percent of Cambodia was covered by forest in 1990. In 2010, a recorded 57 percent of the land was forested with the rapid decline attributed to rampant logging – another aspect the charcoal briquettes aim to tackle. A total of 6.5 kg of wood, or about 10 mature trees, is needed to create 1kg of charcoal. “That’s almost one tonne of wood,” Figa Talamanca says. “If you look at the overall picture, that’s thousands of hectares of deforestation. Around Phnom Penh, each year charcoal comes from further and further away, and that’s troubling.”
Regardless of their reasons for switching from traditional forms of energy to char-briquettes, Cambodians are catching on, with sales increasing from 51 tonnes for the whole of 2010 to the current 50 tonnes – the equivalent of 1,500 bags – each month. “It has been a journey getting many Cambodians to understand the benefits of using charcoal briquettes, but it is a growing market and, we believe, one that will only continue to get bigger,” Figa Talamanca says.
Solar power is another renewable energy that has mushroomed across the developed world and is in its infancy in Cambodia. Star8 is one company that is embracing the green revolution in the form of solar-powered tuk tuks and other products. The innovative Australian business launched on home turf four years ago before expanding to the Kingdom, developing and selling the green tuk tuks and scooters, and solar windows, panelling and tiles made from recycled materials. Keeping in line with the environmentally friendly theme, the energy company’s factory is powered by Cambodia’s powerful sun with additional energy being put back into the grid.
Solar power is also starting to become a common feature in new developments cropping up across the country. The first Western-style shopping complex opened in Phnom Penh in June 2014 in the form of Aeon Mall and boasts solar-powered generators. The capital’s Vattanak Tower, which opened in July 2014, is also LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) compliant. Simon Griffiths, project manager at property group CPRE, says, “Developers, especially international developers, are starting to incorporate environmentally friendly features into their plans, which is a good thing to see.”
Another green initiative in Cambodia is offered by GERES in the form of an independent carbon auditing service. This calculates an organisation’s carbon footprint to raise awareness of issues surrounding climate change and offers advice on how to cut carbon consumption.
It is these small steps that can be seen across the Kingdom that are helping Cambodia to catch up with other leading green countries across ASEAN. Thailand is one country that has taken on efforts to become eco-friendly. The country was one of the first in Asia to introduce a comprehensive feed-in tariff programme, where independent renewable power producers are paid by the government for electricity they produce on top of payment from power utility companies. This sparked a flurry of solar farms and other renewable energy initiatives.
“Cambodia has a long way to go,” Figa Talamanca says, standing in the centre of the SGFE factory’s recently extended building. “But we’re definitely on the right track.”
BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS
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