Wooing big businesses to help solve air pollution

CityNews – Friday 7th February 2020 Michael Shafer, founder and director of Warm Heart Foundation, Pim Kemasingki editor-in-chief of Chiang Mai Citylife and Jeff Tucker, in his role as Director of Sustainability Chair, Pacific Basin Economic Council (which includes ASEAN) met to discuss how to connect the financial needs of the fight for clean air with the sustainable responsibility agendas and funds which many multinational corporations have at their disposal.

Tucker works with CEOs and sustainability decision makers for major corporations and told Kemasingki and Shafer that many companies are looking for meaningful sustainable projects to get involved in. “Luxury hotels are plentiful,” said Tucker. “It is easy to meet five, six, even seven star standards now. People who travel to these places are therefore looking for something more, something to stand out on a personal level, and many large hotel chains are realising that these clients want to stay somewhere with a meaningful story, with a cause or connection and responsibility to the environment or the world at large. This is what will differentiate them from their competitors and attract guests.”

Citylife has, for the past many years, stood by Warm Heart Foundation’s efforts to promote the use of biochar as a real solution to our pollution problems. In fact, we donated 179,000 baht to Warm Heart, through the Citylife Garden Fair, in 2017. In short, biochar, according to Warm Heart’s own web site, “Is a super charcoal made by heating any biomass – for example, corncob, husk or stalk, potato or soy hay, rice or wheat straw – without oxygen. All of the cellulose, lignin and other, non-carbon materials gasify and are burned away (smoke free). What remains is pure carbon – 40% of the carbon originally contained in the biomass. Why is it so valuable? Climate change is threatening food security around the world. When farmers use Biochar as a soil amendment they will benefit from:

  • Bigger yields • Healthier soil • Lower acidity   • Better water retention
  • Stronger plants • Richer soil life • Less contamination   • Higher fertility
  • Promotes seed germination

Some of Chiang Mai’s five star hotels have begun to step up – Four Seasons’s new restaurant has replace smoky charcoal with biochar, the Holiday Inn is exploring ways to become self-contained in usage of energy, 137 Pillars House now not only produces its own bio char, but has a surplus it sells and Shangri-La Chiang Mai has committed half a million baht towards Warm Heart Foundation’s efforts (for which it is awaiting final corporate approval) and has taken a leadership role in helping other businesses follow more sustainable footsteps.

“This is coming,” Tucker said of real investment by corporations into sustainability. “The CEOs know it and they want to be ahead of the curve.”

He went on to cite a report that said each month during the smoke season the north of Thailand loses between three to four billion baht, “and that’s just the industry, not tertiary affects such as layoffs, tuk tuk drivers, and such.”

“You hear people saying that farmers are stupid, that they don’t understand about smoke,” said Shafer. “Well one of the best studies ever done on corn waste was done by Mahidol University in 2018…They looked at Mae Chaem and they found that 41% of all the corn stock was burnt – 110,000 rai – so that is a lot of corn stock. This should produce vast amounts of smoke…at the same time the government commended Mae Chaem for not producing any hotspots that year. Now this is not possible, you have to have hot spots if you burn that much corn, right? So I went to ask farmers how they could burn that much corn and not produce hot spots. And they said to me, ‘We know when the satellite goes over; so they burn when there’s no satellite, right?’”

“A lot of people think that farmers don’t understand what the consequences of burning are,” explained Shafer, “and therefore we need to educate them…People don’t understand that this isn’t an issue of knowledge, it is an issue of necessity. People don’t burn their fields because it’s discretionary, they burn because there is no other choice. They cannot plant if their fields are full of last year’s waste. It has to be cleared. And there is no one there to clear that field.”

Hence Shafer’s solution: bio char for which Warm Heart won National Energy Globe Award in 2017. Read the full article about how it works by Citylife here or Warm Heart Foundation’s more thorough explanation here. We believe that this is a very real and possible solution. Basically the corn waste can be turned into bio char briquettes in a process which does not produce smoke and in a very inexpensive contraption built around a used oil drum. These briquettes are filled with great minerals and can be used as fertiliser and also used instead of traditional coal as it doesn’t produce smoke. There are many other benefits of bio char, but best of all for farmers, is that they can, in theory, double the income they make from corn each year simply by turning corn waste into bio char briquettes. This would be a natural deterrent from burning.

“60% of rural households across the north of Thailand still use charcoal or wood for cooking,” said Shafer. If we can get them all to buy bio char, then the farmers will have a market right here on their doorsteps for their corn waste.”

“My aim is to work with the owners of large hotel chains who are members of APEC and who attend global conferences with an aim to get consistency with hotel bookings throughout the year,” added Tucker. If a hotel is suffering during the burning season, down to 10% bookings, that affects the bottom line. So I can tell them straight that I can help you improve your bottom line. Support this.”

The meeting concluded with a discussion on the possibility of hosting seminars for the Sustainability Committee here in Chiang Mai, even perhaps drawing delegates of APAC up north as part of their 2022 meetings in Bangkok.

Watch part 1 here.