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Old fuel for a new future: the potential of wood energy

Paula Caballero's picture
A woman buying a clean cookstove in Tanzania. Klas Sander / World Bank

The use of wood energy – including firewood and charcoal – is largely considered an option of last resort. It evokes time-consuming wood collection, health hazards and small-scale fuel used by poor families in rural areas where there are no other energy alternatives.

And to a certain extent this picture is accurate. A study by the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves found that women in India spend the equivalent of two weeks every year collecting firewood, which they use to cook and heat their homes. Indoor air pollution caused by the smoke from burning firewood is known to lead to severe health problems: the WHO estimates 4.3 million deaths a year worldwide attributed to diseases associated with cooking and heating with solid fuels. Incomplete combustion creates short-lived climate pollutants, which also act as powerful agents of climate change.

But wood is a valuable source of energy for many of the 2.9 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean cooking facilities, including in major cities. It fuels many industries, from brickmaking and metal processing in the Congo Basin to steel and iron production in Brazil.  

In fact, the value of charcoal production in Africa was estimated at more than $8 billion in 2007, creating livelihoods for about seven million women and men, and catering to a rapidly growing urban demand. From this standpoint, wood energy makes up an enterprise of industrial scale. 

So, instead of disregarding wood energy as outdated, we must think of the economic, social and environmental benefits that would derive from modernizing its use. After all, wood energy is still one of the most widespread renewable fuels at our disposal. We already have the technological know-how to enhance the sustainability of wood energy value chains. Across the European Union’s 28 member states, wood and solid biofuels produced through “modern” methods accounted for nearly half of total primary energy from renewables in 2012.

Human wellbeing depends on a functioning planet—the Pope’s call

Paula Caballero's picture
Children in Bhutan look out on terraced fields. (Photo by Curt Carnemark / World Bank)The papal encyclical “on care for our common home” reflects the kind of insightful and decisive leadership that will be needed to reverse trends that will affect humanity’s capacity to feed itself and provide for collective well-being. The encyclical is not only a sobering call to address climate change, but also a manifesto for environmental stewardship and action. It touches on topics that we, as earth’s dominant species, need to urgently care about if we are to keep millions out of poverty today and tomorrow, and deliver on the rising expectations of a global middle class.

At the core of the encyclical is both a concern for the health of the planet and for the earth’s poor, reflected in a commitment to social values and integrity, environmental resilience, and economic inclusion.

The stock-taking begins, aptly, with pollution: “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” The World Bank’s latest edition of the Little Green Data Book finds indeed that in low and middle-income countries, 86% of the residents are exposed to air pollution levels (measured in exposure particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The WHO last year made headlines when it calculated that 7 million people had died prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012. From safer cookstoves in rural areas, to better air quality management in fast growing cities, this is an area where solutions are known and must be urgently applied.

Blog post of the month: “We are looking at gold and calling it rock”: Supporting communities to calculate the replacement costs of their communal lands and natural resources

Rachael Knight's picture

Boundary tree planting committeeEach month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In May 2015, the featured blog post is " “We are looking at gold and calling it rock”: Supporting communities to calculate the replacement costs of their communal lands and natural resources".

Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, investors are increasingly approaching rural communities seeking land for logging, mining, and agribusiness ventures. In response, international and national advocacy organizations are stepping forward to provide support to communities in negotiations with investors, often with a focus on ensuring adherence to international laws such as the right to free, prior, informed consent (FPIC).[1] Yet even in situations when investors have followed FPIC principles and conducted a formal “consultation” to seek community consent to their proposed business venture, these consultations are generally conducted in a context of significant power and information asymmetries. Communities are frequently pressured by high-level government officials to consent to deals that they do not fully understand or desire. Community members may not be aware of the rental value of their land on the national market, the expected annual profits the investor will gain from the venture, the overall net worth of the investors’ company, and other financial information critical to negotiating a fair contractual agreement, including the value they themselves are deriving from their common lands. As a result, they have difficulty calculating an appropriate rental cost that leaves them in an equal or better position than before the investment.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

In international aid, people should be seen as consumers not 'beneficiaries'
The Guardian
A poor widow in rural Bangladesh can choose from many competing mobile phone operators, weighing the best rates and customer service in order to reach her decision. Why should she not also have the right to choose, or at least be informed about, which NGO builds her flood-resistant home and be given the right to seek redress if it is washed away next flood season.  For the billions of the poorest people around the world who rely on philanthropic aid to meet even basic needs, as the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers”. But why shouldn’t philanthropic programmes abide by the same consumer rights rules expected of a traditional business selling soap or toothpaste? Both are delivering products or services to people, be they wealthy or impoverished: the only major difference is who is paying for it.

Democracy Does Not Live by Tech Alone
Foreign Policy
Enthusiasm for reforming our democracies has been gaining momentum. From the pages of Foreign Policy to the colorful criticisms of comedian Russell Brand, it is evident that a long-overdue public conversation on this topic is finally getting started.  There is no lack of proposals. For example, in their recent Foreign Policy piece, John Boik and colleagues focus on decentralized, emergent, tech-driven solutions such as participatory budgeting, local currency systems, and open government. They are confident that such innovations have a good chance of “spreading virally” and bringing about major change. Internet-based solutions, in particular, have captured our collective imagination. From Pia Mancini’s blockbuster TED presentation to New Scientist‘s recent coverage of “digital democracy,” we’re eager to believe that smartphone apps and novel online platforms hold the key to reinventing our way of governance. This seems only natural: after all, the same technologies have already radically reconfigured large swaths of our daily lives.

Brazil shows how far inclusive green growth has come in 20 years

Rachel Kyte's picture

Also available in: Português


World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change Rachel Kyte talks about Brazil's shift toward green, inclusive growth and how innovative practices developed there have gone global. The next challenge: developing business models to invest in the restoration of degraded land.

Lessons on Forests from Brazil to Ethiopia and Mozambique

André Rodrigues de Aquino's picture
Photo by Andrea Aquino / World Bank​Can Ethiopia and Mozambique learn a lesson from Brazil on harnessing forests sustainably for economic growth?
Thanks to a recent knowledge exchange program, yes!
As we can all imagine, Africa’s lush greenery and planted forests offer huge potential but the sector’s expansion faces major barriers like access to land, lack of access to affordable long-term finance and weak prioritization of the sector.
Take Ethiopia, for example. About 66.5 million cubic meters of the country (46% of total wood-fuel demand) is subject to non-sustainable extraction from natural forest, wood- and scrublands, resulting in deforestation and land degradation. In Mozambique, charcoal is still produced from native forests, leading to immense pressure on natural resources, and way beyond its regeneration capacity. Both countries want to know how the forest sector can contribute to their national development plans and help grow their economies and reduce rural poverty, while being environmentally sustainable.
This topic is of even more importance as we celebrate the International Day of Forests on March 21, and helps us raise awareness on the need to preserve forests and use this natural wealth in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Working at the landscape level to protect tropical forests

Ellysar Baroudy's picture
 Nick Hall

This week in London, the Prince of Wales brought together representatives from government, the private sector, and civil society around the goal of protecting and restoring tropical forests. The gathering took stock of forest commitments made at the UN Secretary-General's Climate Summit last September and identified priority actions for 2015 – a critical year for advancing progress on the inseparable issues of development, poverty, and climate change. 

With all eyes on a new climate agreement in Paris later this year, healthy forests and landscapes are seen as critical to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero before 2100. The key underlying question is how to best achieve a true transformation in how we manage our forest landscapes, which are still degrading at a rapid rate. 

Climate smart management for farms, forests and everything in between

Diji Chandrasekharan Behr's picture
A high-level panel on adaptation-based mitigation at the Global Landscape Forum 2014 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by PROFOR)The energy at the Global Landscapes Forum held alongside the UNFCCC climate negotiations in Lima was electric—charged by the enthusiasm of the scientists, practitioners, indigenous peoples, investors, policy makers, youth and government negotiators who came together to share their latest innovations, tools and ideas for tackling climate change across land uses—from farms to forests and everything in between. Conversations were passionate as we discussed how to bring together our efforts to address climate change and achieve sustainable development at the landscape level—by working in a coordinated manner on agriculture, forests, water and more. 

A notable shift at the 2014 Forum from previous ones, in addition to the mounting numbers in attendance (the event “sold out” with registration closing weeks early), was the buzz about adaptation. It permeated across panels and speakers, making clear the conversation on land-based sectors and climate change has moved well beyond mitigation. The Program on Forests (PROFOR) contributed to advancing the conversation by convening a high-level panel on “Moving forward with adaptation-based mitigation.”    

To get to net zero emissions, we need healthy landscapes

Rachel Kyte's picture
A project restoring degraded hillsides in China. Li Wenyong/World Bank

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that to rein in climate change and keep global warming under 2°C, we will have to start reducing emissions now and get to near net zero emissions within this century.

That won’t happen without healthy forests and soil storing carbon, and it won’t happen without climate-smart land-use practices that can keep carbon in the ground.

Together, agriculture, forestry and other land use changes account for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The sector can be a powerful source of emissions, but it is also a powerful carbon sink that can absorb carbon dioxide, providing a pathway to negative emissions. The IPCC authors estimate that with both supply-side and demand-side mitigation efforts – including reducing deforestation, protecting natural forests, restoring and planting forests, improving rice-growing techniques and other climate-smart agriculture methods, changing diets, and reducing the immense amount of global food waste – we can effectively reduce a large percentage of emissions from the sector and increase carbon storage to move the needle toward net zero.

Liberia, Norway and the World Bank Partner for Sustainable Forest Management

Paola Agostini's picture
Photo by Flore de Preneuf / PROFOR
​It’s not very often that the end of a talk is as exciting as its beginning. Perhaps that should be expected when one witnesses historical moments in time—what can be called true game changers.  Harrison Karnwea, the managing director of Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA), recently joined us at the World Bank, just days after the UN Climate Summit in New York and the signing of a $150 million grant Letter of Intent for a Forests REDD+ program between his country and Norway to be facilitated by the World Bank.

Under the agreement, Liberia and Norway will work together to improve the framework for forest governance, strengthen law enforcement and support efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in Liberia. Improved governance and adequate law enforcement in the forest sector and agriculture impede further destruction of Liberia’s rainforests and aim to avoid illegal logging and unsustainable agricultural practices. In a country where timber was once used to purchase weapons and helped fuel a devastating civil war, the partnership holds promise to reduce carbon emissions related to deforestation and forest degradation, facilitate green growth and enhance livelihoods.

Liberia has a population of approximately 3.5 million people and 4.5 million hectares of lowland tropical forests—one of the largest contiguous forest blocks that remains in West Africa. Liberia’s forests are also widely recognized as a global hotspot of diversity, boasting flora and fauna (like pygmy hippos) that is both rare and at risk.

Liberia plans to conserve 30 percent or more of its forests as protected areas with the remainder to be used for sustainable forest management and community forestry.