In just six weeks, world leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate a new global climate-change agreement. To date, 150 countries have submitted plans detailing how they will move their economies along a more resilient low-carbon trajectory. These plans represent the first generation of investments to be made in order to build a competitive future without the dangerous levels of carbon-dioxide emissions that are now driving global warming.
The transition to a cleaner future will require both government action and the right incentives for the private sector. At the center should be a strong public policy that puts a price on carbon pollution. Placing a higher price on carbon-based fuels, electricity, and industrial activities will create incentives for the use of cleaner fuels, save energy, and promote a shift to greener investments. Measures such as carbon taxes and fees, emissions-trading programs and other pricing mechanisms, and removal of inefficient subsidies can give businesses and households the certainty and predictability they need to make long-term investments in climate-smart development.
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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.
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- Clean energy
- Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
- Clean Cookstoves
- indoor air pollution
- Urban Development
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- Climate Change
- Europe and Central Asia
- Middle East and North Africa
- South Asia
- Latin America & Caribbean
- East Asia and Pacific
However, a recent resolution by the World Health Organization's (WHO) governing body shows that this narrative is beginning to change.
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.
I’m a big believer in setting highly ambitious targets in order to galvanize communities and countries to take action on serious issues. When I was at the World Health Organization in 2003, we set a target called “3 x 5” – committing to treat 3 million people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world by 2005.
At the time, just a few hundred thousand people in the developing world had access to the life-saving treatment. When we announced the target, the global health community was still arguing about whether HIV treatment in poor countries was possible. Some called it an impossible dream that would give people false hope.
I responded that no one ever said treating 3 million people would be easy. But we needed a measurable and time-limited target to change fundamentally the way we thought about the challenges of HIV in developing countries. The target helped change the way we worked – we had fewer arguments about if we should do it, and focused on how to get it done.