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A treadle water pump paid for by offsets has the power to transform poor communities
In the middle of a field on the plains of northern India, farmer Ram Dyal is making a point. One hand grabbing my sleeve, he wraps his other round a sturdy bamboo pole. “This”, he says, slapping it for emphasis, “has lifted poverty from our valley. It has lifted poverty from my home.”
He’s speaking through an interpreter, but looking me hard in the eyes to make sure I understand.
‘This’ is a simple treadle pump, costing around $30, which uses a couple of hours a day of human power – Ram Dyal’s feet and those of his family – to raise water from a tubewell to irrigate the fields.
It doesn’t sound that exciting – a bamboo frame and treadles, a simple two cylinder pump, and a long plastic tube thrust deep into the soil. But its effects are nothing short of revolutionary. Because by enabling crops to be grown all year round, rain or drought, it transforms the livelihoods of the rural poor.
A rural revolution
Take Ram Dyal’s family. Since installing the pump, they’ve diversified on a grand scale, growing garlic, cauliflower, cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and spices, for their own consumption and for sale. As a result, everyone’s better fed, healthier – and much better off, thanks to selling surplus crops. This means they no longer have to decamp en masse in the dry season to work for an unreliable pittance as labourers on the notoriously hazardous building sites of one of India’s burgeoning cities. Instead, the children can stay at school, and the family no longer lives in fear of losing their land.
It’s a success story repeated, with variations, among hundreds of thousands of families right across northern India, where the relatively high water table lends itself to such technology. The pumps were developed by International Development Enterprises, India (IDEI) and now form the heart of a thriving network of energy entrepreneurs – manufacturers, retailers and installers – which has generated sales of approaching two million pumps in total. Studies by the World Bank and the Acumen Fund confirm that families with treadle pumps enjoy better nutrition, health, income and prospects than they did before.
It is a triumph of simplicity and scale: a straightforward, robust technology: living proof that dramatic improvements in quality of life don’t have to come from the use of fossil fuel. As such, it was a fitting winner of an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy (it was as an Awards Judge that I was lucky enough to see the project and talk to dozens of its beneficiaries at first hand).
Heart-warming stuff – but what has this got to do with offsets? The answer lies in the alternative: the diesel pumps, which, despite their shortcomings, had been spreading rapidly across the country. By replacing diesel, or removing the need for its adoption, the introduction of treadle pumps is avoiding the emission of substantial quantities of CO2 (around two-thirds of a tonne annually per pump). And that makes it an ideal candidate for offset funding.
Emissions credits bought on the voluntary market through ClimateCare have enabled IDEI to roll out the treadle pump programme much faster and further than would have been possible otherwise. It’s not been the only success story of this kind. Numerous other small-scale renewable energy schemes, from solar electricity to clean, energy-efficient cookstoves; from biogas digesters to micro hydro, have been boosted thanks to emissions credits sold by ClimateCare and other offset providers.
Together, they exemplify just what can be achieved through the best sort of voluntary offsets. Get them right, and they don’t simply result in measurable carbon reductions – important though these are. They also produce measurable improvements in the quality of life of ordinary people, particularly the rural poor in developing countries – and the quality of the environment on which they depend.
Who could possibly argue with that?
Enter the backlash
Brendan O’Neill, for one. Writing in Spiked Online in 2007, the influential commentator lambasted the treadle pump offsets as nothing short of “eco-enslavement”. ClimateCare, he argued, was “encouraging people in the developing world to ditch modern methods of farming (such as diesel pumps)… so (its clients) can fly around the globe with a guilt-free conscience on the basis that, thousands of miles away, Indian villagers, bent over double, are working by hand … doing hard physical labour … rather than using machines that emit carbon.”
“Feeling guilty about your two-week break in Barbados … living it up with cocktails on sunlit beaches?”, added O’Neill with a flourish. “Well, offset that guilt by sponsoring eco-friendly child labour in the developing world! Let an eight-year-old peasant pedal away your eco-remorse…” And so on, at some length.
It was wonderfully polemical stuff – and wildly wide of the mark, at least as far as the facts were concerned (see box, ‘Hard work?…’). But O’Neill’s central claim – that carbon offsets were no more than a rich Westerner’s guilt-trip – struck a chord with many. It epitomised the backlash which erupted against offsets in the mid-2000s, and which still has considerable influence today.
In some respects, it was inevitable. Offsets had become a bit of a green fashion badge among celebrities, with everyone from Coldplay to Atomic Kitten releasing ‘carbon neutral’ albums. Such a surge of pop star glamour might have made life easier for the picture editors (the lissom bodies of the Kittens being a welcome alternative to yet another biogas digester), but it was a red rag to the bullish scepticism of your average journalist. Set against a lifestyle rich in planes and limos, offsets could easily look like a token gesture – and in some cases, they probably were.
O’Neill is no environmentalist – quite the contrary – but his views found echoes in the green movement too. From George Monbiot to Greenpeace, many argued that offsets effectively ‘legitimise’ carbon emissions: after all, why bother with the thorny task of reducing CO2 when you can simply pay someone to do it for you?
Some described it as ‘buying complacency’ – a guilt-free pass to carry on as normal. Monbiot and others even likened offsets to the indulgences sold to medieval sinners to earn time off purgatory. And one website memorably satirised the whole process by offering unfaithful partners the chance to become ‘Cheat Neutral’. Want to betray your spouse? Simply pay