• Home
  • Peter Holmgren: Splitting hairs over splitting wood

Peter Holmgren: Splitting hairs over splitting wood

Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Posted by


Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

By Peter Holmgren, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

The past month has seen a fierce international and academic debate flare up again over the large-scale use of wood to produce energy, notably in Europe. When we agreed on “Forests and Energy” as the theme for this year’s International Day of Forests on 21 March, we had no idea that there would be such a timely opportunity to share how forests and biomass can deliver crucial energy to support the livelihoods of billions of people, and at the same time provide major opportunities for our climate-smart future.

Bioenergy is energy produced from biomass and waste. The share of bioenergy in the global energy mix has been about 10% over past decades – about double that of the nuclear energy supply and five times that of hydro energy, from a baseline of 2014. The majority of bioenergy comes from wood and plants, often in the form of by-products from agriculture or forestry production. Some 2.6 billion of the world’s poor (equal to 40% of the global population) depend on traditional forms of bioenergy for cooking, heating and income, making it a major factor for livelihoods and food security worldwide.

An earlier controversy arose over the links between liquid biofuels and food security (see, for example, studies by FAO, IFPRI, IIASA and CFS). Liquid biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, constitute a small fraction of bioenergy use. While the use of liquid biofuels has increased in recent years, it remains only about 0.5% of all energy consumed (see statistics here). Biofuels became popular in government policies, first to improve domestic energy security and later also as a means to reduce climate impact. Liquid biofuels are particularly useful in the transport industry, and some recent studies show they could have unexpected climate benefits. But considerable subsidies offered for the production of biofuels have led to questions over undue competition with food production on lands suitable for agriculture. These have impacted food prices and food security. Socioeconomic, ethical, environmental and rights-based arguments were raised at the 2008 Food Summit in Rome. Policies around liquid biofuels remain contentious, although there are expectations that new technology using non-food feedstock, such as cellulose, can provide new opportunities.

The extent to which food production is a limiting factor for food security can, of course, be debated. One reflection is that during more food-insecure times in history, we used a much higher proportion of agricultural land and produce than today to feed our means of transportation – namely, oxen and horses. That said, policies that pay out subsidies for otherwise unprofitable biofuel production need to be well scrutinized for efficiency, as well as unfair competition with food.

A more recent controversy has flared over the use of wood biomass for large-scale energy production, as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale policies and subsidy schemes, for example by the European Union, have been at the center of attention.

A 2013 article in The Economist argued that the political decisions made to increase biomass in the EU energy mix are causing havoc in the wood market, including by raising competition with traditional forest industries. The question was raised as to whether it is wise to use taxpayers’ money to fuel this development. In addition to concerns over subsidy efficiencies, the article ends by stating that wood energy is worse than coal when it comes to an immediate impact on the climate, and reference is made to scientific findings. Fittingly, the subtitle of the article is “Environmental lunacy in Europe.” This “dirtier than coal” notion was introduced in an advocacy paper by the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and created an argument that seems to have struck a chord with the media.

Other major NGOs have also given considerable space to criticizing biofuels and bioenergy, including the World Resources Institute (WRI). Arguments cover both the food security aspect as well as limited climate benefits. There is a tendency to generalize and politicize – concerns over “global competition for land” and “dedicating land for bioenergy” point to large-scale, mono-objective assumptions that create a false dichotomy between bioenergy and all other land-based benefits.

Then, a month ago, a Chatham House report reignited the debate. Like previous inputs, the paper argues that the EU subsidy scheme is a bad use of taxpayers’ money, that the climate benefits are negligible, and that using wood for energy is generally unsustainable and should not be characterized as renewable. The report was contested by 125 signatories of a response from the International Energy Agency, who argued that the analysis and assumptions were incorrect based on at least three major concerns. The debate has since continued to engage academics, activists and policy makers.

So what to make of this heated debate? One gets the impression that otherwise credible media and institutes take surprisingly strong and polarized positions against bioenergy. Is there a way to reconcile these views so as to support a sustainable, climate-smart future?

It would appear that the bioenergy debate needs a broader and more long-term perspective. Focusing only on subsidy schemes and the associated accounting related to greenhouse gas emissions to meet policy targets in the next few years does not provide a holistic picture of a future that we may want to aspire to. If we, for example, aim at a fossil-free, net-zero emissions future further down the line, we have to look at how the biological systems can continue to supply food and energy in integrated ways. And further, we can’t address emissions in isolation, but must develop pathways where climate benefits go hand in hand with improved prosperity and food security for the world’s poor. We should then embrace that bioenergy has a huge role to play for the foreseeable future. And we have to acknowledge a major potential for technology development to serve a bio-based economy, where energy will continue to be an important by-product. These aspects were discussed at a recent international workshop at CIFOR.

A woman drives a cart of firewood back to Zorro village, Burkina Faso. Photo: CIFOR

One common argument is that it is better to leave trees standing than to burn them. This is a very appealing idea, but it is only correct with a short time horizon, and if you don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Forest management implies, among other things, that forest productivity is maintained, while allowing for a sustainable harvest of trees for a multitude of purposes, including energy as an important product. This can lead to extraordinary results over the long term. In Sweden, the standing forest biomass has doubled over the last 100 years, and the sustainable harvest has also doubled. Active forestry can therefore deliver more carbon sequestration, more renewable energy, and more economic value, simultaneously! These are the types of long-term goals and perspectives we need to establish before haggling over the effects of short-term policies.

That said, there are also problematic issues, mainly with traditional forms of bioenergy such as fuelwood and charcoal. Perhaps most notable are the health problems caused by indoor air pollution, to which is attributed an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths in 2012 – a level of calamity that dwarfs current or predicted consequences of overall climate change. Further, working conditions in traditional bioenergy value chains, such as charcoal, are often poor and risky. Unsustainable harvesting of wood resources for bioenergy has led to the degradation of vast expanses of land in some countries. Emissions of soot and pollutants can cause hazards for communities. All of these are serious matters that must – and can – be addressed, but must not, in my view, be used to generally condemn bioenergy and wood energy as important ingredients in our sustainable energy mix and integrated land-use systems.

We need a balanced, long-term and holistic vision of how forests and trees can increasingly provide renewable, clean, efficient and modern energy, supporting livelihoods and a sustainable future worldwide. This is a big part of the solution.

  • Home
  • Wood fuel not as bad for the environment as previously thought

Wood fuel not as bad for the environment as previously thought

Posted by

FTA communications

Photo: Lucy McHugh/CIFOR
Locals burn wood in preparation for honey harvesting in Kapuas Hulu, Kalimantan. Lucy McHugh/CIFOR

By Jack Hewson, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Felling trees for firewood is an eons-old practice that in recent history has come under criticism by conservationists. But according to new research conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the true environmental impact of wood fuel needs to be better understood before sustainability policies can be properly formulated.

“The sweeping conclusion that wood fuel is a chief cause of deforestation, needs to be revisited as the situation is more complex  than that,” said ICRAF scientist Phosiso Sola, who participated in the research.

Globally, the use of wood fuel is of huge socioeconomic significance, with more than two billion people reliant on it for energy, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) alone, more than 70 percent of the population relies on wood fuel to cook and to heat their homes.

But use of this resource comes with sizable environmental and health costs.

The harvesting of wood fuel in SSA is said to result in deforestation and its use as a source of energy is responsible for much of the region’s household greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, indoor pollution from inefficient stoves and poorly ventilated kitchens is believed to be a major cause of respiratory disease.

However, despite these concerns, Sola and colleagues’ research has underscored that the usage of wood fuel is just one of many interrelated drivers causing environmental damage.

After dissecting 131 previous studies, their research concluded that contextual factors in the studies challenge the perception that deforestation is largely attributed to bush fires, overgrazing and woodcutting in addition to wood fuel.

“In fact, there are suggestions that agricultural expansion is a much bigger factor, although intricately associated with the subsequent sale of wood fuel resultant thereof,” Sola said.

One objective of the research has been to undertake a systematic map that takes socioeconomic, health and environmental impacts of wood fuel value chains across SSA. But according to Sola, more analysis is needed to reveal the true picture of the impact of wood fuel.

“You find that most of the papers are either looking at the environmental factors and making broad conclusions from that, or the health factors where wood fuel is causing lots of respiratory disorders, and then there are those who are focusing on the economic aspects. But you don’t have studies that try to look at all of these issues together and, most importantly, at the trade-offs among them.”

“And that is what is required — so we are recommending broader and more robust research that actually takes all of these issues into account simultaneously. Equally important is the reliability of evidence generated – robust research that improves attribution of changes to wood fuel use.”

Evidence-based forestry

The process of systematic review of existing studies is part of a bigger push within the forestry conservation sector to embrace an approach that has its origins in medical science.

In the 1970s, a Scottish doctor named Archie Cochrane published a paper that criticized the lack of controlled trials underpinning the usage of medical practices that had been assumed to be effective.

His work led to the founding of the Cochrane Library — a collection of systematic reviews of medical studies — and other projects that established what became known as the “evidence-based approach”.

Four decades later, “evidence-based forestry” is the latest cross-sectoral synthesis of this method, seeking to bolster the foundations of environmental science, and the sustainability policy implications.

According to Paolo Cerutti, co-author of the research, it is best understood as a form of “myth-busting”.

“Over several decades, a lot has been written on the environmental ‘crisis’ that the small-scale usage of the forest for energy was causing,” he said. “While that carries impact, in many areas it was probably a lot more sustainable than initially thought.”

“Of course, the key point is that there needs to be evidence to back these theories up.”

In partnership with the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), CIFOR has commissioned a number of systematic reviews as part of its Evidence-Based Forestry Initiative, including Cerutti and Sola’s research on wood fuel.

The multi-dimensional nature of evidence-based forestry — one that looks simultaneously at socio-economic, health and environmental factors — compliments the practices of “social forestry”; whereby the engagement of those who depend on the forest for their livelihoods is preferred over uniform prohibition on harvesting wood for energy, or logging, or other damaging practices.

“In this regard, we are now seeing a holistic reappraisal of what is deemed sustainable,” said Cerutti.

For more information on this topic, please contact Paolo Cerutti at [email protected].
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This research was supported by DFID KNOWFOR.

Back to top

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Connect with us