Sanitation systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate finance has huge untapped potential to drive more sustainable sanitation systems that not only release fewer emissions, but which also support public health, resource recovery, and resilience to climate change.
Sanitation systems, which include toilets, sewage systems and wastewater treatment works, are critical to public health and environmental sustainability. But they contribute between 2-6% of global methane emissions, with 1-2% from pit latrines alone, and 1-3% of nitrous oxide. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, significantly contributes to climate change, accounting for more than 20% of current climate warming.
Policymakers tend to focus on mitigating methane emissions from sectors like agriculture and energy and often overlook the role of sanitation. This article explores the potential of climate finance in addressing the methane problem in sanitation, particularly from a Global South perspective.
Sanitation and the methane challenge in the Global South
In the Global South, poor sanitation systems coupled with their poor management, the poor planning of buildings and drainage systems and the inappropriate use of wetlands leads to methane emissions.
Many of these sanitation systems are also ineffective at supporting public health and other aspects of environmental protection. For example, a recent study of sanitation systems in 15 Global South cities found that 62% of sewage and faecal sludge is managed unsafely. The systems are hazardous partly because they rely on open pit latrines and poorly built septic tanks that lead to groundwater contamination.
How climate finance can address sanitation’s methane challenge
Climate finance can support targeted infrastructure, technology and monitoring tools to drive sanitation systems that emit fewer emissions, and support other policy goals including better public health and cleaner water.
The funding can be sourced through public, private and blended finance, instead of using solely private or public funding. Blended finance creates a common investment scheme for development finance and private investors to drive a design-thinking solution to address a development problem efficiently, effectively and with reduced investment risk.
This funding should target water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) initiatives. These promote holistic settlement planning, sewage management, and reduce methane emissions. Other efforts need to create a monitoring and evaluation system for these initiatives at the local level.
There should also be efforts to use simple technologies in both rural and urban areas that are low cost and can be scaled up. For instance, the Janicki Omni Processor, supported by Bill Gates and piloted in Dakar, Senegal, turns human waste into water and electricity. Each plant costs at least US$2 million. Moreover, polite processes are less complex than reality which will be a further hurdle.
Also, climate funding should target technologies that capture methane emitted from the sanitation systems, once efforts have been made to make the systems more sustainable. A recent study shows that atmospheric- and low-level methane can be captured using a common and less expensive catalyst, biomimetic copper zeolite, which could have potential for use at scale.
Four important policy considerations for climate financing of sanitation systems
Choosing the right funding mechanisms: Financing mechanisms that could address the methane problem in sanitation include grants, concessional loans, carbon finance, and public-private partnerships. Each mechanism has its own advantages and considerations, and the selection depends on the specific context and needs of the region. In African countries, for example, which now have skyrocketing public debts, grant-like climate finance will lead to more impact but needs to be accompanied by proper accountability for the use of the resources.
Research, capacity building and technology transfer: One key aspect of climate finance is technology transfer, which would give Global South countries more access to innovative sanitation solutions. However, research and technology transfers are still limited in developing countries and there are few industry-academia or policy-academia collaborations. Addressing the methane problem of sanitation requires more global collaboration and knowledge exchange using mainstream platforms like forums, conferences or Communities of Practices (e.g. Ghana’s Climate MRV Community of Practice).
Improvements in policy and governance: Effective policy frameworks and governance structures are crucial to the success of climate finance initiatives in the sanitation sector. Therefore, governments need to prioritize sustainable sanitation in their national development plans and create an enabling environment for climate investments. Local authorities must be involved in this process for local impact and to facilitate the required cultural change relevant to the adoption and acceptance of the new initiatives. Additionally, transparent and accountable governance mechanisms are essential for efficiency as evidence shows that countries receiving more climate finance present a high risk of engaging in corrupt practices.
Circular economy principles: Climate finance can help bring circular economy principles into sanitation systems. The concept of the circular economy emphasizes the efficient use and reuse of resources, minimizing waste generation. A circular economy, therefore, creates an avenue to focus on the entire sanitation chain. By promoting resource recovery, such as the production of biogas from waste, climate finance can further support projects that not only reduce methane emissions but also generate renewable energy and valuable by-products.
Policy focus and action point
There is current traction in climate finance, and regional and global development organizations are emerging sources of funding. Policymakers in developing countries can help meet a broad range of SDGs by allocating some of these funds towards sanitation.
By adopting a systems-thinking perspective, countries in the Global South can work towards a sustainable and climate-resilient future, where sanitation systems contribute to both environmental sustainability and public health. The potential is there, but it requires political actors, the private sector and local stakeholders to drive the change.
This article is published as part of a series on climate finance organized in partnership with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (MCII) and LUCCC/START.