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Peter Holmgren: Splitting hairs over splitting wood

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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).
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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.

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  • Firewood collection taking a toll on Uganda’s forests

Firewood collection taking a toll on Uganda’s forests

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Photo: Douglas Sheil/CIFOR
Scientists urge sustainable firewood collection efforts to fully consider the needs of the local population. Douglas Sheil / CIFOR

By Michael Casey, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Uganda – Protecting tropical forests in Africa often means directing conservation and law enforcement efforts towards fighting illegal logging, hunting and poaching.

But scientists under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry decided to take a closer look at a largely overlooked challenge – the collection of firewood.

In many parts of world, fuel wood is the main source of energy. That is especially the case in sub-Saharan Africa, where rural communities depend on wood and charcoal to cook meals, boil bathwater and heat their homes.

Much of that wood is collected from tropical forests, including from national parks that are home to endangered primates, elephants and big cats. Yet, until now, there has been very little research on the impact, if any, this wood collection is having on local flora and fauna.

Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and doctoral student Marieke Sassen of Wageningen University in the Netherlands decided to examine fuel wood collection in the forests of Mt. Elgon National Park in Uganda. Located near the Kenyan border, this park is known for its vast collection of rare plants and is home to more than 300 species of birds, as well as a 4,321-meter-high extinct volcano that is believed to be nearly 24 million years old.

“During my research at Mt. Elgon, I found that illegal fuelwood comprised the most important use of the forest, following agriculture and grazing,” Sassen said.

“Then, during my follow-up study of human impacts on forest structure and species richness, I found indications that allowing people to collect fuel wood also possibly contributed to forest degradation and slowed down regeneration, so I decided to investigate this further.”


After conducting surveys and interviews with nearly 200 households, the researchers found that wood collection had an impact on the park, especially up to a thousand meters from the park’s boundary and the densest portion of the park.

 Rural women should be empowered to take the lead in forestry

The most popular species of trees were also those favored for timber use like Prunus Africana, Popocarpus milianjianus and Allophylus abyssinicus.

“Demand for wood fuel from tropical forests is still likely to grow in the foreseeable future,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“Our results indicate that the forest may become more degraded as a result, with negative consequences for conservation, as well as for the people who depend on the forest.”

Sheil described wood collection as “a major, but very localized threat if not well-controlled.” He added that people used the opportunity to cut trees, set snares and engage in other illegal activities.

“In many larger, less densely-populated forests, there are bigger threats like  land-clearing for large-scale agriculture, grazing or plantations,” he said. “Those threats are more severe and more likely to be permanent.”

“But fuel wood collection is significant near forest edges where forests occur in areas with dense human populations that live mainly on subsistence lifestyles. So this is certainly a problem in many other East African forests.”


The authors cautioned that it wouldn’t be easy to combat the problem with measures like limiting access to the park, since so many rural communities depend on fuel wood for their survival. In many cases, they have no alternative sources of energy, nor the money to buy wood from other places.

Complicating matters, Sheil added, is the colonial legacy that colors the debate in places like Uganda, where many parks were established during British rule and included controversial measures like evicting entire communities in the name of conservation. Park access thus remains a sensitive topic, and calls to open parks to farmers and others are a common campaign issue during elections, according to Sheil.

“Excluding people will make them even more hostile and less supportive of the park,” he said.

“So it is a balancing act. My own feeling is that we can permit firewood collection if we can also set up a process to require those involved to accept a role in protecting the park. It’s not easy to do, but conservation is seldom simple.”

What is evident, however, is that any solution must fully consider the needs of the local population living around the park.

“You are talking about communities that have been accessing these forests for generations,” said Sheil. “They have never needed to collect firewood anywhere else before.”

“Poor people should not become further impoverished because of forest conservation,” Sassen added. “Morally, this does not make sense and it can also lead to conflicts. Conflicts over forest resources rarely benefit conservation or local people.”


In order to limit damage to the forest, the authors said the answer may lie in giving communities a greater say in park management – under a system where the law-abiding residents would help authorities prevent those who are carrying out illegal activities like logging or laying snares.

Presently, the park has agreements allowing legal access to collect wood, but turns a blind eye to others to avoid conflicts.

“Park management lacks the means to enforce the rules of the agreements and local forest user committees are unable to or unwilling to impose them,” the study concluded.

“What I would like to see is a much more conditional form of access where you negotiate with the local people and say if we are going to allow you to continue this, we need to agree on some rules and you agree that you help police these rules,” Sheil added.

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  • Triple win from efficient cook-stoves and firewood from agroforestry

Triple win from efficient cook-stoves and firewood from agroforestry

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Firewood from Grevilliea prunnings drying in a shed. Photo by James Kinyua/World Agroforestry Centre
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Open fire three-stone cook stove. Photo: Mary Njenga/ World Agroforestry Centre
Open fire three-stone cook stove. Photo: Mary Njenga/World Agroforestry Centre

By Susan Onyango, originally posted at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World Blog

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), about 2.5 billion people in the world, mostly in developing countries, depend on biomass energy for cooking and heating. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 90% of the population rely on wood fuel, particularly charcoal and firewood, for their cooking energy needs. Firewood for domestic use is collected from both on-farm and off-farm sources.

The commonly used traditional open-fire three-stone cook stoves consume large amounts of firewood and create indoor air pollution. Smoke in the kitchen is a major concern to those that lack access to clean cooking facilities. According to the World Health Organization, over 4 million people die annually from illnesses attributable to indoor pollution from cooking with solid fuels such as firewood and charcoal. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to this silent killer.

Cecily Muthoni is smallholder farmer in Embu, on the slopes of Mount Kenya about 120 kilometres north east of the country’s capital, Nairobi. On her one-acre farm, she grows cassava, beans, maize, Irish potatoes and a range of vegetables for subsistence, alongside tea, coffee and macadamia nuts as cash crops. She also grows sugarcane, mangoes, avocados and bananas for sale and home consumption.

Muthoni has about 170 exotic and indigenous trees on her farm. She has two cows, two goats and a few poultry. Like other women in her community, she uses both a charcoal stove and the three-stone cook stove to prepare meals for her family of five. Virtually all households in Embu use firewood on three-stone cook stoves, with over 70% of the population sourcing it from trees on their own farms.

Cecily Muthoni with Grevillea prunnings from her farm. She mostly sources firewood from trees on her farm or from her neighbours’ farms. Photo: James Kinyua/World Agroforestry Centre
Cecily Muthoni with Grevillea prunings from her farm. She mostly sources firewood from trees on her farm or from her neighbours’ farms. Photo: James Kinyua/World Agroforestry Centre

She would have possibly stretched this if she used an energy efficient cook stove. When her stocks are low, she purchases firewood from her neighbours at Ksh. 100 (about USD 1) per lot of 34 kilogrammes. The same quantity of firewood costs over Kshs. 200 (about USD 2) from other sources.

Prunings from trees found on farms are a readily available and affordable source of energy for cooking. What households like Muthoni’s need are efficient cook stoves that use less wood fuel and with less smoke than conventional cook stoves.

Options for cleaner cooking solutions

A recent study by a team of scientists compared the ease of use, fuel use efficiency and gas and particle emissions of a small-scale gasifier cook stove with that of the traditional three-stone stove.

Gasifier stoves use biomass and burn fuel at low oxygen levels to produce gas that ignites at high temperatures of about 7000C resulting to reduced emissions of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter. The stoves burn on firewood and crop residues such as coconut shells and husks, and maize cobs. These are converted into charcoal as a by-product and can also be used for additional cooking, or as biochar to improve the retention of nutrients and water in soil. The traditional three-stone cook stove uses larger pieces of firewood and produces a lot of smoke particularly if the wood is not properly dried.

Firewood from Grevilliea prunnings drying in a shed. Photo by James Kinyua/World Agroforestry Centre
Firewood from Grevilliea prunnings drying in a shed. Photo by James Kinyua/World Agroforestry Centre

The cooking test

The study involved cooking experiments in which five households were randomly selected to participate. The trials compared the effect of using Grevillea prunings, against maize cobs and coconut husks as types of fuel on the gasifier stove. Five-person meals were cooked between 3p.m. and 6 p.m., with five tests carried out in each household.

“We found that compared with traditional three-stone cook stoves, the gasifier cook stove saves 27 to 40% of fuel, reduce cooking time by 19 to 23% and reduced emissions by 40 to 90%,” said Mary Njenga, lead researcher for the study and scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre.

The women felt that adopting the gasifier would help cook food faster and save the amount of firewood they needed, freeing time for other activities and reducing the burden on collecting firewood. They also pointed out that the gasifier uses smaller pieces of firewood than other types of stoves, making tree pruning a good source of cooking fuel. For some, the need to cut firewood into small pieces to fit into the canister was a bit cumbersome as it required additional labour. The coconut shells and maize cobs did not require any prior preparation.

The Grevillea prunings cooked food faster than the maize cob and coconut shells while the maize cobs produced more smoke than the Grevillea prunings and the coconut shells.

“I found the gasifier stove good to cook with. It will help me cook faster and save the amount of firewood I need. This will give me more time to do other activities and reduce the burden of searching for firewood,” said Muthoni. “However, this stove does not produce as much warmth in the kitchen as the traditional three-stone cook stove does. We often sit in the kitchen during the cold season to warm ourselves.”

Benefits of the gasifier cook stove

There is an opportunity for extending use of the gasifier to address energy poverty and health risks associated with domestic biomass energy in developing countries. Use of prunings from trees on farms and reduced consumption of charcoal and firewood will save trees and encourage forest regeneration. In the long-term, this will contribute to climate change mitigation. Charcoal is a by-product of the biomass burned in the gasifier stove and can be used as fuel for use on other cook stoves.

The researchers recommend improvements to respond to women’s cooking practices to encourage the use of the gasifier stove. It is noted that a household’s commitment to saving fuel, reducing smoke in the kitchen and lessening labour for firewood collection are major considerations for the adoption of the gasifier cook stove

“The gasifier cook stove saves fuel and income spent on energy for cooking. It also produces charcoal for further cooking, for sale or use for improving the retention of nutrients and water in soil, cooks relatively fast and reduces indoor air pollution from cooking with biomass. There is need for further work to understand peoples’ cooking culture using wood fuel and other biomass and how it fits into cleaner cooking solutions for increased demand and adoption,” concluded Njenga.

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