February 2007  
Charles Ehrhart Makes Markets Multitask
by Cameron Walker

Charles Ehrhart, the coordinator of CARE International's new Poverty and Climate Change Initiative, wants more people to make the connection between poverty alleviation and the global carbon market.

Buying carbon credits could seem like a simple act of punching in the numbers—plug in the tons of emissions you need to offset, pay up, and somewhere trees get planted to put up a tiny force field against climate change.

But what if, by buying carbon credits, you could also help lift a woman in Mozambique above the poverty line by funding a rainwater collector that lets her grow fruit trees? Or if you could help a Nepalese village re-forest nearby hillsides, which might protect homes and lives from landslides?

Charles Ehrhart, the coordinator of CARE International's new Poverty and Climate Change Initiative, wants more people to create—and invest in—projects like these. With his help, CARE hopes to develop multiple-benefit mitigation projects that connect vulnerable communities to carbon markets that not only fuel the global struggle against greenhouse gas emissions but also fund local adaptation to climate change.

Social Carbon

One step in this direction is the CARE Brazil Social Carbon Fund. Launched last November, this fund will generate carbon credits through community-based projects and then reinvest the earnings in natural resource management and poverty alleviation programs in Brazil.

A flow of funding from markets to poor communities would come at a crucial time. While direct aid geared toward advancing the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals is rising, Ehrhart says, the costs of meeting these goals are rising even faster. Right now, an estimated $46.6 billion is needed; by 2015, the financing gap will jump to $78.5 billion. Neither figure, he says, likely reflects the needs of ecosystems and livelihoods hit by a changing climate.

So could linking up several of these immense global problems be the solution? Ehrhart thinks it could be a start. "Climate change is a pressing global problem that urgently needs to be addressed. But so is poverty. And so is conservation," he says. "So if we can put together an instrument that allows us to make a contribution, albeit not a solution, to all three of those—well, we think that's a beautiful thing."

Into Africa

Ehrhart, who has a doctorate in social anthropology from Cambridge University, has always been interested in poverty's causes and solutions. He first focused on South America, and was working there when he met his wife. But soon, the couple found themselves drawn to central Africa because, he says, "the situation was so terribly difficult there."

They went first to Uganda and then, two years later, to Tanzania; in each country, Ehrhart worked on the national government's Participatory Poverty Assessment, a large-scale research project that brings the perspectives and priorities of the poor into shaping a national approach to poverty. In the course of learning about poverty in these countries, Ehrhart says, "it just became clearer and clearer to me just how important environmental issues were."

Most people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on natural resources for their livelihood—whether through farming, herding livestock, or collecting wood to sell as fuel. In talking with farmers in Tanzania, Ehrhart kept hearing similar stories of dramatic climate shifts. In particular, people talked about the rain. Some told stories of water-starved fields. Others talked about how rainy and dry seasons had begun to blur together.

The stories from rural, poor communities were what drew Ehrhart, who also has a background in biological sciences, further into the world of climate change. "It was not the science, it was not reading books, it was not hearing the theory," he says. "It was having these discussions with farmers."

Climate Change and CARE

CARE, too, began with stories of communities in need. The organization began just after World War II. In Europe, food and other supplies dwindled during rationing and the disruption of war. The American founders shipped over CARE packages (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) to the needy. While the focus countries have changed and grown to include 70 nations, CARE's mission has not wavered. Each of CARE's projects looks at the root causes of poverty and aims to improve people's livelihoods by focusing on local needs and solutions, says Lynn Heinisch, from CARE's New York media relations office.

In early 2006, CARE hosted a workshop to plan its next five to seven years of programs addressing poverty and the environment. Ehrhart, who had coordinated a regional CARE project in East Africa, learned that climate change was not on the agenda. When he called the workshop's organizers, they agreed that climate change was important. But it was so complex, they said, where should they begin?

Ehrhart convinced them to let him give a 30-minute talk about how climate change affected CARE's work and how CARE could respond. Two hours into Ehrhart's presentation, people were still asking questions. In the end, the workshop's participants decided that climate change should be one of CARE's main concerns in looking at poverty and the environment.

By June, Ehrhart had started coordinating the novel initiative. Since then, he's been working with people in CARE's offices around the world, helping employees understand climate change challenges and develop a plan of action for dealing with them. CARE has already started to monitor its current projects, such as well-drilling, to make sure that they can withstand environmental shifts from a changing climate.

Adaptation and Mitigation

CARE has a long history of helping people adapt to changes in their environment. In the past, the organization used techniques like rainwater harvesting and agroforestry to help people respond to drought.

While there are many underlying causes for threatened ecosystems and dwindling ecosystem services, Ehrhart says, "climate change is rather the capper, it's a substantial nail in the coffin of these resources."

And with a changing climate, people will need even more help adapting to catastrophic events, like floods and droughts, and to long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns. Yet these adaptation programs are expensive, Ehrhart says, because they need to meet each community's distinct needs.

Another approach to climate change is mitigation, or reducing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In the long term, Ehrhart says, the battle to mitigate needs to be fought primarily in energy-guzzling countries like the United States. So why is CARE, focused on extremely poor regions with low-energy usage, getting involved in mitigation as well as helping people adapt? Because at this point, Ehrhart says we need to try everything we've got. "It's no longer a question of mitigation or adaptation. It's now necessarily both."

Both reducing deforestation and sequestering carbon play an important role in cutting back greenhouse gases, Ehrhart says. CARE wants to do both through its community-based projects in order to generate funds through the carbon market.

The resulting income could go back to the community, funding adaptation projects, improving conservation and addressing poverty at the same time.

In Nepal, for example, the monsoon season has been getting longer and longer. During the rainy months, more and more water pours down. Hillsides in this mountainous country become supersaturated; the resulting landslides can wipe out everything from grazing lands to homes, taking lives along with them.

CARE's program hopes to decrease this risk by promoting tree planting—working with local knowledge and diverse native species—in areas like these. Trees could anchor the soil, provide new sources of income and sequester carbon. If a program like this was linked to the carbon market, money from carbon credit sales could also support local disaster preparedness and other community adaptation programs.

Programs that boost social benefits with the help of the carbon market could be a welcome change from previous market-based programs. "This is particularly nice because, in many cases, markets have driven quite destructive changes in the communities where we work," Ehrhart says. But these benefits, he stresses, will only be possible if a proper policy framework exists.

Changing the Rules?

CARE and other development groups' interest in carbon markets and climate change issues comes at a critical point. As global climate change measures are debated—from the European Union's ETS to voluntary carbon standards to how Kyoto will function after 2012—adding poverty issues to the agenda frames these discussions. "From a policy standpoint, what we've learned is that the environmental voice—as important as it is in these issues, it doesn't have the same kind of traction or pull as the development community's," says Toby Janson-Smith, director of the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance.

One of the compliance market's problems that Ehrhart would like to address is how carbon credits are valued. Right now, there's no difference in between credits that reduce poverty and conserve biodiversity and those that do not. Credits of the former type will soon be found in CARE Brazil's Social Carbon Fund, launched at the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention meeting in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2006.

"We are using this as a pilot fund in Brazil," says Divaldo Rezende of CO2e, the company helping CARE launch the fund. "Then the idea is to extend this to other regions—Africa, Asia, maybe Latin America."

Finding funds that can support conservation and community development projects for the length of time they need to grow and flourish can prove difficult. The social carbon fund, along with other projects that link development with carbon markets, may help generate long-term resources for projects like these, Ehrhart says.

Eventually, Ehrhart hopes that other groups would be able to implement these types of projects on the larger scale that will be needed. But CARE can provide a model of how these markets can benefit communities, conservation, and climate. "We want to demonstrate the range of positive possibilities." All this needs, he says, is a little creative thinking.\

Copyright 2007, Cameron Walker. All rights reserved.