Trees for wood energy and land restoration

Photo: Jolien Schure/CIFOR
Photo: Jolien Schure/CIFOR

By Susan Onyango, originally published at Agroforestry World Blog

True or false?:

  • Extraction of wood energy is a threat to forested landscapes.
  • Extraction of wood energy is an opportunity for forested landscapes. 

That was the opening question at a discussion forum on sustainable wood energy at the Global Landscapes Forum held on the sidelines of the UN climate talks in Paris. The mixed responses to the statements signified the potential of a sustainable wood energy sector in Africa.

Globally, 2.6 billion people depend on wood energy with a large proportion this number found in developing countries. At least 80% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa use wood energy for cooking and sterilizing water. Lack of alternative energy sources and growth in urban population is driving up the demand for wood energy. It is estimated that the use of charcoal in towns and cities areas rises by 3.3% every year.

Some say that wood energy is old fashioned. However, it is gaining importance in the energy sector even in developed countries. But how are afforestation and agroforestry for wood energy production linked to land restoration?

“In Germany for example, two-thirds of energy comes from wood and future demand is expected to increase,” said Christina Seeberg-Elverfeldt, policy advisor at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). “To meet climate change mitigation targets and carbon emission reduction, the sustainable of wood energy needs to be addressed.”

International debates and the Sustainable Development Goal number 7 on energy access will only succeed with the integration of the potential of wood energy. Harvest needs to equal production.

As it stands, 50% of forest degradation in Africa is attributed to the extraction of wood. What we have to talk about is the current unsustainable use of wood and the impact on people and landscapes. We need to find opportunities for sustainable wood energy in landscapes and forests, and agriculture land restoration.

Wood energy in Madagascar

Only 14% of households in Madagascar are connected to the power grid. Charcoal is widely used for cooking and has led to deforestation and massive land degradation. BMZ and GIZ are implementing a programme to break this viscous cycle in the region of Diana in the north of the country.

“Around 3000 households have planted 9,000 hectares of degraded land with fast-growing trees creating new productive forests,” remarked Klause Ackermann of GIZ. “The entire wood supply chain has also been modernized from sustainable production to efficient conversion into charcoal, marketing, and burning of charcoal in efficient stoves in urban areas.”

The charcoal value chain

Another speaker at the event, Steve Sepp of the ECO Consulting Group said the high value of the wood fuel value chain in Africa’s rural areas is underestimated. About US$ 120 million worth of charcoal is sold per year in sub-Saharan Africa and this mainly produced in rural areas with majority of markets found in urban areas.

According to Sepp, the success of the Madagascar project is attributed to three main factors: enabling conditions associated with local and national government structures, securing land tenure, and formalizing the value chain. All these have synergy effects on the natural forest landscape and energy supply with ecological, economic and social benefits.

Koffi Apedjagbo of GIZ in Togo remarked that wood energy is a threat unless the whole sector is turned into into a value chain that will create an opportunity to pull people out of poverty. REDD+ is also vital in turning wood energy from a threat into an opportunity.

2.5 million metric tons of charcoal is consumed annually in Kenya, with 87% of this coming from private and communal farms in drylands. Tree-based bioenergy has the potential to sustainably provide fuel for cooking and heating in households. Improving the cooking of food using wood energy requires an in-depth understanding of the full production-to-use cycle, and investments in improvement should be based on this understanding.

“Charcoal can be produced in different ecological zones. Most charcoal comes from drylands with low biomass,” said Mary Njenga of the World Agroforestry Centre. “It is how we produce charcoal that matters. Inefficient kilns lead to wood wastage with 90% released into the atmosphere in form of carbon.”

Coppice management of native species Acacia drepanolobium produces 18 tons per hectare of wood for charcoal a 12-14 year cycle. Also, farmer-managed natural regeneration in Senegal has seen over 50,000 hectares of farmland restored within a four-year period. Domestication of preferred woodfuel tree species provides multiple benefits such as honey and pasture. Farmers can sell surplus wood fuel to supplement their income.

No one should die cooking

According to the World Health Organization, over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels. This indoor pollution gives negativity to wood energy.

Njenga added that the use of efficient kilns in charcoal production, use of improved cookstoves, proper kitchen ventilation and change in user behaviour is key to eliminating the negativity to woodfuel.

She outlined challenges facing the development of sustainable woodfuel as:

  • Negative perception: more negative than nurturing
  • Inadequate funding and investment in wood energy
  • Policy: more controlling than enabling and regulating
  • Localizing improved cooking systems

Concluding remarks

  • The consensus was that wood energy is important in many developing countries and will remain one of the main pillars of energy provision in the developing world. There are huge challenges with huge development potential.
  • Extraction of wood is a driver of forest degradation, a major problem in many countries. When included into REDD+ and rehabilitation programmes, wood energy can become an important part of these initiatives.
  • We need more engagement, scaling-up. We need the enabling environment, awareness, incentives and law enforcement.
  • Wood energy production can be a profitable option for farmers to invest in.
  • It can contribute to environmental, economic and social benefits at local and national benefits. It can contribute to international commitments such as the New York Declaration and the just-launched Africa100 initiative.
  • A viable wood energy sector will directly address the Sustainable Development Goals 1, 5, 7 and 15 on poverty, gender equality, access to energy and preservation of forests respectively.
  • If wood energy is produced sustainably and used efficiently it can be an essential element for forest and land restoration and should be promoted.