Charcoal: a green fuel?
Blistered faggots of wood bagged on trucks and bike racks, smouldering domes of earth, wood and corrugated iron, branches arranged like pyres of elephant tusks: this is the charcoal economy which dominates rural Africa. 80% of sub-Saharan Africans rely on fuelwoods for their cooking, and it’s industry worth between US$9.2 and $24.5 billion annually1, yet it’s probably the most stigmatized fuel on the planet.
But its blackened image means that it’s largely shunned by governments, ignoring what is perhaps the most important “nexus” between fuel security, agroforestry management, and water supply sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa2. It’s a problem which will not disappear: for every 1% increase in urbanization, a 14% increase in production is required from rural charcoal burners in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania3. I want to explore the thorny contest over charcoal, looking at its stigma, its role in deforestation, and the solutions.
A driver of deforestation?
The charcoal trade is widely perceived as a key driver in deforestation, but it’s worth questioning even that assumption. A widely-cited 2013 publication4 argues that, seen holistically, charcoal causes forest degradation rather than deforestation: whilst forests lose species richness, the forest itself isn’t cleared. In West Africa, selective tree-cutting is dominant; machetes and chainsaws leave roughly a metre of the tree stump, which often resprout, whilst the surrounding forest grows on.
Sadly, indigenous slow-growing hardwood species are deliberately targeted by burners because their charcoal produces less dust, which causes forests are losing species richness to charcoal as no incentives exist to replant them2. Acacia trees are favoured in the Horn of Africa for their slow burn and the aromatic incense they produce on burning1, especially when exported illegally in dhows to the Gulf States. At their peak in 2014, these generated US$360 million per year, mostly conducted by the Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab, charcoal allowing them to persist in connection with Al-Qaeda for so long despite a UN ban 5 6.
Al-Shabaab’s charcoal plundered from Somalia has fuelled its terrorism
Nonetheless, I think that it’s important to avoid being too precious about protecting particular species, particularly in West Africa: such selective cutting can allow greater light penetration, giving rise to saplings which exhibit a high diversity of plant life, a 2016 study found7, which suggests forests can recover with greater diversity than before. West Africa, with more abundant rainfall than the east or south, grows back quicker, 9-12 years versus a 20 year wait or more to the east. The west also appears to be managed more sustainably: in east and southern Africa, clear-cutting is the dominant mechanism particularly in Tanzania, deforesting the land, turning it into brush, degraded to scrub4. Desiccating winds lift unconsolidated soil; heat bakes them into salty crusts; floods pull sediment into rivers, exacerbating their toll.
A New York Times article8 from 2016 follows the emotive plight of a charcoal sellers in Madagascar: as El Nino’s has caused three years of drought, in turn catalysing rapid urbanization and demand for charcoal, charcoal sellers have turned to trees illegally to make ends meet, barren treeless plains surrounding settlements. Literature attests this worrying phenomenon in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, with deforestation’s expansion up to 50km inland from the port, 20-km intensively, as need has indiscriminately deforested not only hardwoods but anything that will burn9. There are also suggestions, particularly from Ethiopia, that charcoal production follows road links2, and that this is contributing to greater transport emissions10.
Nonetheless, this still only represents a third of total Tanzanian deforestation11: agriculture, the wholesome cousin of charcoal burning, often escapes notice and stigma, whilst killing forests. Authors of this 2017 study cite charcoal as being a more sustainable environmental practice in comparison than agriculture, given that forests – whatever the biodiversity or tree cover – can still protect soil from erosion and downstream property and agriculture from climate-change induced stress. In this light, the FAO advocates farmers to plant woodlots on their degraded land using fast-growing nitrogen-fixing species, which can be coppiced and then harvested for charcoal whilst consolidating and replenishing exhausted soils10. What needs to happen is that the model that agriculture is inherently more valuable than woodlands and charcoal needs to end. In doing so, farmers will stop unsustainably slashing down trees for charcoal in one fell swoop to make way for their crops, theoretically.
The socioeconomic benefit
Now, let’s turn to the economics: charcoal production, though marginalized and often illegal, has a key socioeconomic role. It is seen as a shock absorber, allowing families an economic vent in the case of illness, a death, or a drought, whether that family is among the poorest, or better off and using charcoal as a side-job to diversify their income between maize harvests2 12. 36% of households also used charcoal to pay for a designated item, from dowry to solar panels, according to a small village study in central Mozambique conducted through interviews. It was also cited as strengthening the female position in marriage, as charcoal – a relatively newly income – is not gendered, allowing female cooperatives to form, external to their husband, and giving them autonomy and some control over their marriage12 13.
With a machete and some land the only venture capital required, it is easy to see why charcoal can act as a buffer. It is also easy to see why any attempt by the government to formalize land tenure, when unreserved dryland forests can be plundered, would be construed as anti-poor2. One 2010 study from Uganda suggests charcoal exerts a 14% reduction in a family’s likelihood to fall below the poverty line, giving $122 per adult per year extra to a family14.
However, the producer of charcoal receives only a small fraction of the total profit made for the sale of a bag. Corruption and collusion pervade a charcoal value trade stuffed with bribes to transport officers, which, in one anecdotal example within a larger study1, a lead researcher travelled with a charcoal dealer, paying an average of $22 to each police office en route. Such bribes vary widely and are passed onto the consumer, 20-30% of market price in Kenya; only 12% in Malawi. Nonetheless, the dealer-transporter-wholesalers still profit most, and part of the problem is that they have no incentive to pay the consumer more fairly, as they are content with their profitable status quo1.
So, how can charcoal be managed sustainably?
Firstly, the FAO advises a shift to accepting charcoal dust briquettes, dust which often blows away or is thrown away if the wood collapses, as a viable alternative charcoal. Although more volatile and incorporated with soil, they can be sold nine times more cheaply than charcoal, with 88% less CO2 emissions, 67% less carbon monoxide emissions, and 51% less PM2.5 [see GeoIssues article about PM pollution here]. These savings not only save money but are incredibly important in reducing indoor air pollution and respiratory illnesses, with the potential to save at least US$1.5 billion in health and environment costs per year10. For example, in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, female community groups have begun recycling the 88 tonnes of charcoal dust produced per year15 from charcoal breakages in their slum to give them cheaper, longer-lasting16 and healthier energy [see here for my article on the Kibera slum].
Secondly, kiln efficiency should be improved: by simply moving from the average 18% efficiency kiln4 to a 35-40% kiln, an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could occur whilst doubling the output of charcoal per wood volume, which could be even higher if pyrolytic gases were captured and combusted by the kiln10. Yet, like all these things, better kilns are often static rather than mobile and need more knowledge to construct.
Ultimately, however, any government which cares about its energy security needs to acknowledge charcoal as a potentially sustainable and omnipresent sub-Saharan fuel, and to integrate it into their economy with transparency10. It must not be ignored as ‘anti-progress’, as the recent Tanzanian government’s energy policy did, which includes no mention of it despite the fact that 85-90% of its country’s fuel is supplied by wood11. Rather than courting natural gas companies, sub-Saharan Africa should stand up for a traditional and domestic fuel which will give national energy security, as well as the fuel to cook food. Green charcoal can be a reality, but only if governments accept it.
In his masterful book, Africa17, the journalist Richard Dowden arrives in a remote Somali nomad camp and describes being “greeted by the scent of wood, the ubiquitous, eternal smell of humanity in Africa”. I don’t think that there is a better description of woodfuel’s importance in Africa.
17 Africa (3rd edition), Richard Dowden, Portbello 2014, pg. 122