LifeStraw Coverage Divided

Carbon-credit, health angles illustrate global priorities

Kakamega, Kenya—International coverage of a campaign to provide water filters financed by the sale of carbon credits to nearly a million homes here has revealed a noteworthy divide in global priorities related to climate change and public health.

Carbon for Water, as the project is called, is the brainchild of Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, which manufactures the filters. By removing the need to burn charcoal or firewood to purify water through boiling, the company demonstrated that its product has the potential to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions. It registered the filters, called the LifeStraw Family, with The Gold Standard Foundation’s voluntary carbon-credit market, effectively linking the fight against climate change to efforts to improve public health. But which of those objectives comes first? It depends which media outlet you ask.

I was in Kenya in late May because Vestergaard Frandsen hired me to blog about the campaign from the field. By early June, about 900,000 homes had received new filters, and Carbon for Water had been featured in more than forty articles around the world, which exhibited an interesting trend. Stories published within Africa tended to focus on the health implications of the campaign, while western outlets focused more heavily on the carbon-credit angle.

The Nairobi Star, for example, led thusly:

Over one million households in Kakamega will receive water filters free of charge next week after the launch of a ‘Carbon for Water’ programme. The donation by Vestergaard Frandsen aims at prevention of water borne diseases in the region.

Likewise, Safari Africa Radio opened with:

With the high death rate of infants in the country, a new water filter programme has kicked off to reduce water related diseases. The Lifestraw Family water filters programme is set to start in Western and Nyanza province which contribute to the highest rate of under five year deaths nationwide making to 2 out of every 5 live births.

Like the majority of stories in other Kenyan and regional outlets, both pieces go on to highlight further benefits of the filters and provide a few statistics on waterborne tropical diseases that Kenya and other developing countries still face. To be clear, the carbon discussion is not omitted completely—it’s just not the primary focus of the story.

Bloomberg News, on the other hand, placed heavier emphasis on the carbon-credit angle. Its story mentions the health impact, but by the fourth paragraph has explained some details of the carbon credit plan that were wholly omitted from the Nairobi Star piece. For instance:

The Carbon for Water program, certified by the Gold Standard Foundation, a Geneva-based registry for voluntary carbon credits, may reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in the East African nation by as much as 2.5 million metric tons a year, [CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen] said. JP Morgan Chase & Co. agreed to purchase 1.2 million tons of voluntary emission-reduction credits generated by project in 2012, he said.

In many of the stories, the difference is evident as early on as the headline. Bloomberg, for example, titled its story, “Vestergaard Frandsen Starts Voluntary Carbon-Offset Program in West Kenya,” and Fast Company chose the headline, “Fighting Water-Borne Disease In Africa, and Making Millions In The Process.” The Nairobi Star, meanwhile, went with: “One million homes to get clean drinking water,” and from Safari Africa Radio: “Firm Moves in to Counter Waterborne Diseases.”

There were exceptions to this pattern, to be sure. A Kenya-based Xinhua correspondent split his focus on health and carbon down the middle, first focusing on the program’s financing and expected carbon reductions, and then moving onto the preventative effects the filters could have on pneumonia and diarrheal disease, which the story explains is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old.. And Business Daily Africa, unsurprisingly, but atypically for an African outlet, detailed the business angle, explaining that:

The credits, which will be sold at the international carbon markets or recently launched Africa Carbon Exchange (ACX) in Nairobi, are estimated to earn the firm $13 million (Sh1 billion), making it the biggest carbon deal in the Kenyan market in what could boost the country’s credentials as a clean economy.

Overall, however, the difference between how African and non-African outlets approached the story reveals a lot about the global politics of climate change and public health generally.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As the world’s poorest continent, it is the least equipped to adapt to the impacts, yet it struggles to be heard in international negotiations over how to deal with the problem. At the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, for example, African governments walked out in frustration at wealthier nations’ reluctance to discuss binding emissions reductions. One senior African negotiator told the Guardian that industrialized nations were working out “a ploy to slip through provisions that are not amenable to developing country efforts. It’s playing dirty.”

Over the last decade, the establishment and development of the world’s carbon markets have been no more inclusive of African governments. A GreenBiz story picked up by Reuters at least hinted this. Carbon for Water, it said, “brings carbon finance to Africa, which so far has received less than 5 percent of all carbon finance revenues.”

On some level, then, it is understandable if African media outlets feel a lack of incentive to cover the carbon market and the importance of emissions reductions. Asked why he focused on health more than on carbon credits, Nairobi Star reporter Hilton Otenyo wrote in an e-mail, “I personally felt the common Mwananchi [a Swahili word for citizen] understood nothing about carbon reduction and by extension carbon credits. It goes without saying that clean drinking water is a problem to many people.” He added that, “The little feed back we have received from our readers is that the Vestergaard Frandsen company is here in western Kenya basically for business in carbon credit and not to help them.”

It’s understandable that the African outlets mostly focused on the continent’s dire health needs. But the program presents an opportunity to explain carbon-credit initiatives to an audience that may not already understand carbon reduction or carbon credits, or distrust the people administering them. Local audiences should understand the need for carbon reductions, their universal appeal, and that ultimately Africa stands to benefit the most if global partnerships to combat climate change are effective.

Non-African outlets, including those in the US, face the same problem, only in reverse. People in the US, Europe, and elsewhere have been openly skeptical—with good reason—about the real potential for carbon credits to curb climate change. A new type of carbon credit, therefore, is big news for people who are interested in a successful carbon credit market. But a focus on the carbon market at the expense of simultaneous health benefits does not help to disprove the sentiment that Otenyo described: that Carbon for Water is in Kenya only for business interests, and not to help local people.

Non-African outlets could have expanded and improved their coverage of the program’s potential benefits to Africa. Most of their stories focused on how the Carbon for Water program has created a unique carbon-credit model, but they could have helped non-African audiences understand the very real and surmountable problems that continue to devastate countless lives around the world. The lack of balance in international climate politics could also use a little more attention.

So while African outlets should be educating their audiences on the importance of emissions reductions and carbon credits, non-African outlets should be better educating their own audiences not only on Africa’s lack of clean water, but also on climate policy discussions, and the importance of who has been leading those talks—and who has not. Although Vestergaard Frandsen paid for me to be in Kenya and blog about the campaign, my point is not that journalists could have covered Carbon for Water in a way that better suited the company’s interests. Rather, it is that they could have covered it in a way that more clearly connected priorities in one part of the world to those in another.

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Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist who covers environmental and social justice issues. She has a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband.