Trees for wood energy and land restoration

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 statement 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.

Session on sustainable wood energy at the Global Landscapes Forum 2015 on the sidelines of the Paris COP21. Photo: ICRAF/Susan Onyango

Session on sustainable wood energy at the Global Landscapes Forum 2015 on the sidelines of the Paris COP21. Photo: ICRAF/Susan Onyango

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.

 Watch the video: Doudou – The Green Businessman: Energy Wood Reforestation in Madagascar

“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.

Charcoal for sale at a Nairobi suburb. Photo ICRAF/Miyuki Iiyama

Charcoal for sale at a Nairobi suburb. Photo ICRAF/Miyuki Iiyama

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.”

See: ICRAF policy brief 28 – Developing sustainable tree-based bioenergy systems in sub-Saharan Africa

Landscape restoration as an opportunity to boost the wood energy sector. Trees on farms offer a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of wood fuel and other ecosystem services particularly for smallholders.

Mary Njenga speaking at on sustainable wood energy production at the Global Landscapes Forum 2015 on the sidelines of the Paris COP21. Photo: ICRAF/Susan Onyango

Mary Njenga speaking at on sustainable wood energy production at the Global Landscapes Forum 2015 on the sidelines of the Paris COP21. Photo: ICRAF/Susan Onyango

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

At a separate session titled Bioenergy in the landscape: investments in renewable energy for low emissions development”, also at the Global Landscapes Forum, discussed the consequences of bioenergy as a renewable energy source. Integrating bioenergy production in tropical forest landscape management and wood-based renewable energy from plantations and wood residues offer sustainable low-carbon pathways. Biomass fuels can contribute to REDD+ and maintain the integrity of landscapes. The session also discussed the development of sustainable woodfuel 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.

Further reading:

ICRAF policy brief 28 – Developing sustainable tree-based bioenergy systems in sub-Saharan Africa

ICRAF policy brief 31 – Opportunities and challenges of landscape approaches for sustainable charcoal production and use

ICRAF working paper 196 – From transition fuel to viable energy source: improving sustainability in the sub-Saharan charcoal sector

Also see:

Presentation by Mary Njenga: Agroforestry for sustainable wood energy

Fueling a debate: Sustainable wood energy as restoration option?

World Agroforestry Centre at the Paris COP21

Flickr: COP21 Paris

Blog: Towards a sustainable tree-based bioenergy sector in sub-Saharan Africa

Blog: From ‘energy poverty’ towards sustainable tree-based bioenergy

Blog: Charcoal production in Africa can be sustainable



Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango is the Global Communications Coordinator at the World Agroforestry Centre and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. With over 15 year’s experience in communication, she ensures efficient and effective coordination of communication support to units and regions at ICRAF. She joined ICRAF in 2014 as communications specialist for the Climate Change Unit. Susan holds a MA communication studies and a BA in English. Twitter: @susanonyango

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