Reducing Air Pollution and Climate Change, Brick by Brick

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is supporting changes in Colombia’s brick kiln sector, which could help change artisanal brick industries and black carbon emissions around the world.

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Black carbon emissions are measured at a brick kiln in Colombia

Around the globe, towering smoke stacks belch thick, black plumes of smoke into the sky. Inside, the literal building blocks of nations are baking. 

Worldwide, 1.5 billion hand-molded bricks are fired in rudimentary kilns every year. Typically heated using coal, these kilns contribute to 20 percent of the world’s black carbon emissions. Some 90 percent of this production is in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and in Bangladesh. Their contribution to pollution is dramatic: In some South Asian cities, they’re responsible for up to 91 percent of particulate matter emissions, a major component of the air pollution that kills some 7 million people around the world every year.

While South Asia dominates the sector, there are 45,000 brick producers in Latin America and it is here that the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is working with the Corporacion Ambiental Empresarial (CAEM) and Colombia’s Ministry of Environment to transform the brick sector into a greener, more efficient future through the bricks sector initiative.

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Brick kilns are source of black carbon and air pollution in many parts of the world.

“The CCAC support has been important, without its help we wouldn’t be talking about black carbon goals or other pollutant goals,” said John Henry Melo Pineda, the Coordinator of the NDC Update Process at the country’s Ministry of Environment, adding that the CCAC has helped make short-lived climate pollutants a priority. “I think the CCAC has been essential in this country to setting black carbon mitigation goals.”

The initiative involves a portfolio of actions that are being implemented in stages. Each stage brings together not just brick kiln entrepreneurs but also government ministries, academics and researchers, NGOs, and industry leaders. So far, six years of collaboration have resulted in an impressive list of achievements: nine emissions factors identified for input into technological models, 168 different black carbon measurements taken across the country, 2,446 people trained, eight universities working on research and measurement, and a portfolio of emissions reduction activities for the sector. The brick initiative even received a Sustainable Development Goals Award in the non-business category from the Global Compact Network for Colombia and the Bogota Chamber of Commerce. The award honours outstanding work to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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Coal and biomass are are the main source of fuel in Colombian brick kilns

This work is also helping Colombia enhance the ambition of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), or their commitment to climate change mitigation, by including short-lived climate pollutants and explicitly linking climate with clean air.

“Our goal is to be more ambitious in our NDCs this year,” said Pineda of a process the ministry is currently finalizing. “This ambition does not only means increased emissions reductions goals by 2030 but also having way better information and methodology. This NDC, compared to 2015, is the product of the work of more sectors, more ministries, more ministries at the sub-national level, and even the private sector, who have collaborated to make our NDCs much stronger this time.”

Pineda adds that the CCAC has been an essential part of the NDC process by helping Colombia develop a global black carbon mitigation goal that is relevant and applicable to local circumstances, rather than based on modeling scenarios from global emissions factors.

Seeing how the Sector Stacks Up

In Colombia, there are 2,435 brick kilns, 70 percent of which run on fossil fuels. The air pollution these kilns create has major implications for climate change, but is also deadly in a more immediate sense: 8,000 Colombians die every year from diseases caused by air pollution.

One of the first steps taken by the initiative was measuring brick sector emissions. To do this, the Coalition and CAEM analyzed Colombia’s brick kiln industry and modelled different interventions like improving fuel sources and updating kiln technology. They then determined which public policies and guidelines could most effectively produce a cleaner and more profitable combustion process.

This is innovative work: it's the first time that black carbon measurements for the brick kiln industry have been developed in Latin America.

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Black carbon measurements being taken with the Ratnoze portable sampling system

Next, as part of the CCAC’s SNAP Initiative, Colombia estimated the economic, environmental, and social benefits of reducing black carbon and particulate matter emissions using different mitigation scenarios. This stage was made possible by the Coalition’s Long-range Energy Alternative Planning (LEAP) – Integrated Benefits Calculator (IBC), a suite of tools developed to help countries assess and prioritize policy options and measures, including how to develop a national SLCP planning process.

“The SNAP Initiative has been essential to letting high-level decision-makers know about this issue, which was unknown just a little while ago. Now, at the highest levels, they know what black carbon is, why it's important, and why it is necessary to link air pollution and climate change,” said Pineda.

The next step was more precise measurement and analysis of the sector’s emissions. Colombia was one of the first Latin American countries to deploy black carbon measurements in the brick sector using a CCAC-supported measurement protocol and a Ratnoze portable sampling system, which measures solid fuel combustion emissions. 

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A brick kiln in Boyacá, Colombia

In 2020, the CCAC supported the publication of the CAEM report A Validated Portfolio of Black Carbon Mitigation Measures for the Brick Industry in Colombia, a study that analyses the sources of air pollution, particularly black carbon. It also looked at the public health impacts of these emissions, and the economic impacts on the brick sector to help make the most competitive and effective mitigation decisions.

“These are artisanal brick kilns we’re talking about: very simple, just a pile of bricks that you put coal into and burn, so having an estimate of how much black carbon is emitted from these processes is important to see where we can modernize and try to improve these production processes to make them less harmful for the environment and to make them more efficient,” said Professor Boris Galvis, an expert on black carbon emissions and the brick kiln industry, from Colombia’s University of La Salle.

One emission reduction strategy is updating the artisanal kilns to more energy efficient ones equipped with a stack or additional chambers.

Currently, says Professor Galvis, a lot of black carbon measurements are approximations. Using methodologies like those developed in Colombia in other parts of the world, is an important intervention that can provide more precise black carbon emissions data. 

Support for this work is important because the largely small-scale producers cannot do it on their own.

“Artisanal entrepreneurs don’t have the financial muscle to research and implement these changes so we’re helping them identify what a scalable conversion model could look like,” said Fabio Salgado, a Senior Program Specialist at CAEM. “It can help answer questions like, which energy efficiency measures can be implemented at a low cost, and which would improve the health and safety of their workers and make them more productive and more sustainable?” 

Bringing the Sector Together

For the last 10 years Viviana Alvarez has run a small, family-owned brick kiln with 20 employees in La Tebaida in the department of Quindio. The kiln sells bricks to the central region of Colombia. She’s an entrepreneur who has been working with CAEM and CCAC.

“I want to make different and positive changes in the brick sector,” said Alvarez. “I want to help motivate other entrepreneurs to build a more sustainable industry that can continue functioning for a long time and benefit my employees and their families.”

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A meeting of Colombia's National Brick Kiln Association

Alvarez has modernized her kilns to make them more environmentally friendly and efficient. She’s stopped using coal, and instead burns biomass waste from the region’s coffee industry— a more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly option. She also trains students from the region on these new methods and is helping get more precise black carbon measurements with specialized stacks.

She’s been able to do this work, in part, because she’s part of the National Brick Kiln Association, which was formed in 2014 as part of the work on the brick kiln sector.

“This has given me an opportunity to speak with other brick kiln associations in the country, which is very useful because I learn about the positive experiences they’ve had and how they overcame the challenges they faced,” said Alvarez. “We can work together for a better sector and a better future together.”

Bringing brick producers together so that they can modernize and become more efficient is another emissions reduction strategy initiated by the Colombian government, CAEM and the Coalition. 

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Brick producers learn new firing methods

Alvarez says that, at first, these kinds of changes can seem impossible for small entrepreneurs, with obstacles that are too technical or expensive. Getting together, however, helps them see what’s possible. It helps them come up with alternative funding models, collectively lobby government officials, and make sector-wide changes. They also share strategies to make production more efficient and environmentally friendly.

“It’s exciting to share our success with other entrepreneurs. I think it's a model that shows small entrepreneurs can change and improve their practices, and adhere to environmentally-friendly standards while becoming a more productive sector.”

This work also brings producers and environmental authorities together through public policy meetings and workshops so they can address sectoral issues collectively. A particularly successful example of this collaboration is brick kiln producers joining with CAEM and the Ministry of Environment to write a proposal on a regulatory standard to meet the sector’s needs. This led to a roadmap called Resolution 909/08.

“That’s what works, that’s what really has an impact,” says Galvis of the convening work CCAC is doing. “When the community comes together, it really has an impact on improving the whole sector, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

These changes not only improve the long-term habitability of the planet— they’re also about the immediate working and living conditions for Colombian brick producers.

“If we can improve the whole process it has an effect on elevating the quality of life of men, women, and children involved in brick production while also having an impact on climate change,” said Galvis. “We hope that in the end this will not only have an impact on reducing black carbon emissions around the world but also help small-scale producers improve the way they make bricks so that their whole life, their whole economic status improves.”

 

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