COP28: Malawi commits to decarbonise building sector, signaling end to environmentally harmful fire bricks

Written by Chimwemwe Padatha

Published: December 10, 2023

Topic: COP28

The rain is back in Malawi, guaranteeing annual crop production for farmers, but to 25 year old Morris Mandala, a resident of Mandala village, in Lilongwe, the country’s central region, it is the beginning of a lean period for his business.

For the past six years, Morris has survived on selling traditionally fire cured bricks highly considered a threat to the environment.

Kiln burnt bricks are common in Malawi with the burning process lasting between 10 to 40 hours and are known to be harmful to the environment including deforestation and soil damage.

Morris is aware of the dangers burnt bricks pose to the environment but he has no other way of providing for his family of three children.

“We buy firewood to burn the bricks, it is true that the business contributes to deforestation, there is no other option for us but to continue burning bricks,” he said.

All year round, Morris produces the burnt bricks and transports them to various townships raising around $700 annually.

Morris Mandala working on his kiln. Photo by Chimwemwe Padatha

Stakeholders make case for climate-friendly construction materials at COP28

At COP28, Cities Alliance on Sustainable Construction organised a side event on ‘Fostering Urban Resilience and Community Engagement’ on December 6, where delegates encouraged countries to decarbonize the buildings and construction sector.

Speaking during the event, Carmen Vogt, head of cities section at GIZ, said in urban development, it is crucial to bridge the gap between climate, resources and just transition.

Vogt said governments should provide an enabling environment through tailor-made projects to change materials for the construction sector, adding that “if we don’t change the material and the standards for construction then we will have a big problem in the future.”

She made reference to an Ecokiln technology being implemented in Malawi that enables the production of climate-friendly high-quality bricks while improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions to the environment.

“Our colleagues support the production of climate friendly bricks through the so-called Ecokiln technology, locally there is a need for 100,000 new homes per year and an associated use of 3.5 billion bricks per year so this is a huge amount,” she said.

This technology according to Vogt uses waste materials from tobacco and food industry and emits 85 percent less energy as compared to other methods.

Panelists pose for a group photo after the session on Buildings and Construction for Sustainable Cities at COP28. Photo by COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled

Malawi commits to sustainable construction at COP28 

At the conference, France and Morocco, alongside the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), launched the ‘Buildings Breakthrough’ to accelerate efforts in the transformation of the building sector – which accounts for 21 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The agreement which aims to decarbonize the building sector and make climate resilient construction prevalent by 2030 saw up to twenty-seven countries pledging their commitment. One of these countries was Malawi. 

Malawi’s National Construction Industry Council (NCIC), estimates that at least 850 thousand metric tons of wood are used each year to burn bricks releasing about 1.5 million tons of carbon emission.

Since 2020, Malawi banned fire cured bricks in government, commercial and institutional projects.

Implementation of this regulation, according to environmentalist Mike Chimaliza, has not met necessary expectations as the country has seen a proliferation of environmentally harmful bricks in the construction industry in the past few years.

“You can see that there is still a proliferation of buildings that are being constructed using fire cure bricks which is very unfortunate,” he said.

Lack of regulation implementation might impede progress 

In 2018, NCIC gazetted the “Use of Sustainable Construction Materials Regulations” promoting the use of sustainable and environmentally friendly construction materials in the construction industry.

Unlike other countries where fire cured bricks are banned on residential buildings, Chimaliza notes that Malawi lags behind in the implementation of these regulations.

“City councils shouldn’t only require concrete blocks when someone is constructing within their premises but this should extend to all households within the cities like Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu,” adds Chimaliza.

Primarily, fire cured bricks are considered cheap in Malawi compared with cement blocks that are now being encouraged.

Another environmentalist, Mathews Malata suggests that the government should identify the construction industry as one of the sectors driving deforestation.

Malata hopes that through this, the government can easily come up with incentives aimed at encouraging sustainable construction materials.

“It’s becoming difficult for people to afford cement blocks for construction purposes, I wish we had a better solution to promote the availability and scalability of sustainable construction materials,” he said.

Malata observes gaps on the importance of adhering to regulations on sustainable construction materials, a situation that has triggered debates among several quotas.

He said, “we have had debates even at parliament that Malawi is not ready for sustainable construction materials, it appears that we still have diverging views and we need to heal that to have one position.”

A house under construction using fire cured bricks. Photo by Chimwemwe Padatha

Government promises stricter measures after COP28 commitment 

Enforcement of regulations guarding against the use of fire cured bricks in the construction industry is slowly picking up as the government is implementing the policy in phases.

For now, public and commercial projects are barred from using the baked bricks, a ban not only aimed at conserving the environment but also contributing to the improvement of quality infrastructure.

Companies not complying with the regulation risk being fined through several sanctions introduced by the government.

NCIC Corporate Affairs Officer, Lyford Gideon, said the council is reviewing penalties to discourage non-compliant individuals, adding that one of the sanctions will be payment of a one percent fine of the total cost of the project under construction.

“A month ago, the government gazetted penalties for those that do not comply but for now all projects that were not complying were being stopped until they comply,” he explained.

Since January this year, NCIC has stopped about ten projects for not complying with the “Use of Sustainable Construction Materials Regulations” of 2018. The hopes are that the COP28 commitment will result in tougher regulations by the government.

 

This story was published as part of Climate Tracker’s COP28 Climate Justice Reporting Fellowship

About the author of this article
Chimwemwe Padatha

Chimwemwe is a freelance Journalist from Malawi, a Correspondent for Germany's International Broadcaster, Radio Deutsche Welle (DW) and a contributor for the Voice of America (VOA). He is a Media and Communication professional and 2023 alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S Department of State's exchange program.