Bioenergy Forum: Explore renewable energy from trees

Welcome to the Bioenergy Forum, moderated by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Cypress tree plantation near Aberdare forest, Kenya. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Cypress tree plantation near Aberdare forest, Kenya. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

The demand for energy across the world is huge. If all of the energy the world uses were produced from oil, the world would need more than 13 billion tonnes of oil every year! Indeed, over one half of the world’s energy is derived from oil and natural gas. Another 30% comes from coal and peat and 5% from nuclear generation.

Only 13% of our energy comes from renewable sources. This is clearly a crazy situation: unless major changes are brought about, energy use will double, leading to a long-term increase in atmospheric temperature that most climate scientists believe will exceed safe limits quite considerably.

The hunt for renewable sources of energy is on. Photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, tidal turbines, hydropower plants and others are being developed and put to use to increase the share of renewables in our energy mix. But only 10% of the world’s energy currently comes from biological sources, of which 87% comes from woody biomass. This seems illogical, as plants have evolved to be highly efficient users of the sun’s energy to produce biomass. If we could find efficient ways of using biological sources to produce energy, we could develop truly renewable energy systems.

Wood was humankind’s main source of energy from the discovery of fire until industrial times. Without wood, people would not have been able to cook their food, keep warm and keep predatory animals at bay.

Maybe for that reason, wood in developing countries is often regarded as a primitive fuel, generally associated with poverty and blamed for widespread deforestation. It is also blamed for the deaths of millions as a result of the toxic fumes that build up when food is cooked over fires in enclosed areas.

Wood was humankind’s main source of energy from the discovery of fire until industrial times. A clean-burning log fire. Photo courtesy of Prof Tony Cunningham

Wood was humankind’s main source of energy from the discovery of fire until industrial times. A clean-burning log fire. Photo courtesy of Prof Tony Cunningham

Yet in fact, data from authorities like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that cooking with wood has had a trivial effect on tree cover overall. And while the toxic effects of wood smoke can be serious, there are solutions in the form of improved cook stoves, appropriate (less toxic) tree species and better-ventilated cooking areas.

It is true that women and children are faced with the drudgery of walking long distances to collect fuelwood where it has been over-exploited locally. This points to the need for more agroforestry systems that produce fuelwood on the farm.

Charcoal sellers in Mozambique.World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Archives

Charcoal sellers in Mozambique.World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Archives

On the other hand, the widespread production of charcoal is clearly associated with the loss of trees over quite wide areas, and misguided efforts have been made to ban its production, transport and sale. Charcoal is an $11 billion industry in Africa alone; it would make more sense to regulate the industry and make it sustainable.

Most importantly, wood has the potential to be a truly modern fuel, and the technical, economic and realistic potentials are huge. It is ironical that while development assistance agencies often avoid supporting wood-based energy systems in developing countries, they pursue policies in their own countries to increase the use of wood for energy.

The European Union, for instance, generates more than 100,000 GWh of electricity from biomass every year, much of it derived from trees, and has ambitious targets to increase this in the future. Twenty three percent of Finland’s energy is derived from wood, which is more than the total generating capacity of most countries in Africa. There are enterprises in Sri Lanka that grow Gliricidia both to feed to livestock and as a feedstock for electricity generation. Trees that produce oily fruits have the potential to become important sources of biofuels, and others that have a high sugar content can be converted to distilled ethanol to blend with road fuels.

Of course, there are challenges and dangers. If we are to make trees a significant source of energy, then we must ensure that we can produce tree-based energy in a truly renewable fashion without compromising ecosystems services. We must be sure that we can match demand with production, and that we do not seriously compete with food production. We need to better understand systems of land use that favour integrated food and energy systems. We need to collect and analyze the information we already have on tree-based energy, identify knowledge gaps, carry out research and develop effective energy systems. Even more importantly, we need to keep policy-makers informed and supported; we need to get tree-based energy onto the agenda when energy policies are being debated, and we need to dispel the myths that circulate concerning the use of trees as a renewable energy source.

This forum will help us in these tasks. We will use it to explore the many facets of tree-based energy, and we invite contributions from anyone who has information and ideas to share.

Go to Bioenergy Forum

This article was prepared by Phil Dobie, with inputs from ICRAF Scientists Ramni Jamnadass (Head of the Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery programme), Henry Neufeldt (Head of the Climate Change programme) Miyuki Iiyama (Researcher), and Mary Njenga (Post-Doctoral Fellow).


Related links and stories:

Unpacking the evidence on firewood and charcoal in Africa

What really happened with jatropha in Kenya

What do we really mean by land degradation? –

More people, more trees: the pathway to food and nutritional security in Africa-

Good, bad and toxic fuel woods: Trees on farms make the difference

Exploring agroforestry in the water-energy-food nexus

Is that hot shower deforestation-free?

Charcoal Briquetting in Nairobi Relieves Poverty, Environmental Stresses

Charcoal a dark issue for Somalia

Agroforestry can meet charcoal demand in Kenya

Bioenergy gathers pace

ICRAF-IFAD Programme for the Development of Alternative Biofuel Crops

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Farm area ‘the size of Switzerland’ needed to meet India’s biofuel shortage

The economics of oil palm in Indonesia

The carbon footprint of oil palm in Indonesia

The drivers and levers of deforestation

Mitigation and adaptation: a perfect marriage made on farms'

Philip Dobie

Philip Dobie, an international development professional with over 30 years experience, is Senior Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has extensive experience in development policy, drylands management, capacity development, food security, natural resources research, natural resources management, inter-governmental negotiations and management. He has lived and worked in Latin America, Africa and the United States.

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