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

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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So, instead of disregarding wood energy as outdated, we must think of the economic, social and environmental benefits that would derive from modernizing its use.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.

There is also good news on the health front, with many global efforts put into developing and marketing cleaner cookstoves, and potentially life-saving changes within reach. While still at the testing stage, it is encouraging to note that the latest biomass stoves are almost as clean as LPG stoves.  But in reality, how people use these stoves and whether or not people make the switch to cleaner alternatives is as important as the technology itself.

In developing countries, formalizing what is currently an informal and often illegal activity has important development implications which are particularly attractive in the context of reaching for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including:
  • Goal #3 (health and wellbeing) and Goal #5 (gender equality): Increasing availability and access to clean wood-based cooking and heating technologies could reduce a household’s wood energy consumption, and cut down on deadly exposure to indoor air pollution and time spent collecting wood and cooking – with particular importance for women and children. 
  • Goal #7 (energy access): Wood energy solutions could help reduce energy poverty and increase the use of renewable energy.
  • Goal #8 (economic growth and employment): Modernized wood energy value chains could have high economic potential, generate substantial tax revenues, and create formal jobs, which are especially important in rural areas with limited economic opportunities outside of agriculture.
  • Goal #13 (combat climate change) and Goal #15 (sustainable forests): Vibrant wood energy markets could make forest investments more competitive; stimulate efforts in sustainable forest management; incentivize reforestation and afforestation efforts; and promote wood energy as a part of a low-carbon energy portfolio.
​So what will it take to get there?

First, wood energy needs to be perceived as any other commodity, with its fair – but not heightened - share of risks and rewards.

Second, political commitment and credible governance frameworks are needed to set industry standards and to collect tax revenues, which could then be reinvested in sustainable natural resource management. In fact, modernizing wood energy value chains presents an opportunity to restore degraded or underutilized lands, while strengthening locally controlled forest and tree management systems.

Third, we need to improve our knowledge of market trends in the wood energy sector. It’s crucial that reforms complement ongoing development efforts, such as expanding electricity access, promoting the use of clean cookstoves, and protecting natural forests.

The 2015 World Forestry Congress in Durban and the COP21 climate talks in Paris are places for the international community to come together and visualize the future. This future should include sustainable wood energy supply chains and improved methods of production and consumption that can help deliver multiple wins.  


Paula Caballero

Former Senior Director, Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice

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