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Wood fuel in the climate pledges of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

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A man transports firewood via motorbike in East Africa. Photo by Sande Murunga/CIFOR
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A man transports firewood via motorbike in East Africa. Photo by Sande Murunga/CIFOR

Nearly every rural family in the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa relies on wood to cook, boil water, provide heat and often to build their homes. Even in many urban areas, wood is the only affordable energy source.

Since wood fuel is here to stay, at least for now, scientists from the Center of International Forestry Research (CIFOR) wanted to find out how countries in the region prioritized this energy source as part of the climate actions they intend to take under the Paris Agreement.

Known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), these proposed action plans were drawn up before the accord was signed in 2015 and will help determine if the world can achieve the Paris goals. Since Paris, the ‘intended’ has been dropped and countries have submitted their final plans, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The CIFOR team, including scientists part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), examined how wood fuel was introduced, listed or framed in the NDCs; the existence or listing of renewable energy and energy efficiency plans; and the existence of supporting national policies and strategic documents.

“We looked at 22 randomly selected countries and their planned climate actions. Although wood fuel is mentioned in most plans, they don’t say how they intend to reach their targets or what the roadmaps, timelines and legal issues are,” says Christopher Martius, CIFOR scientist and team leader. “These plans are ambitious but they are mainly a declaration of intentions.”

The researchers found that even when plans were converted from INDCs to NDCs, just over half of the countries left out a budget or had any specific energy policies in their national planning strategies.

“It appears a lot of these countries rushed to get their [INDC] plans in place and they didn’t take the opportunity to revise them before they were automatically converted to NDCs. So they were basically a copy and paste exercise,” says Ivy Amugune, CIFOR research assistant.

One exception is Somalia, which revised and resubmitted its plan. It was also the only country to provide a detailed section on the environmental impact of charcoal. Somalia’s NDCs list renewable energy as one possible solution, but funding remains an issue.

Read more: Measuring the effectiveness of subnational REDD+ initiatives

Women gather firewood in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Photo by Sande Murunga/CIFOR


Renewable energy sources — mainly wind, solar and hydropower — were mentioned as alternatives by 17 countries in their action plans but implementing this strategy may not be so easy.

“Biofuels and solar energy projects have been introduced in some rural areas, but they come with a price, especially in remote areas,” says Amugune. “The problem is that setting up these systems and maintaining them costs money. Wood fuel is cheap — in fact, for most people, it is actually free.”

But rapid deforestation in many countries is making it more and more difficult for communities to harvest wood fuel.

“In Kenya, for example, you find people in rural areas have to walk for miles now to get wood and water. Changes in rainfall are occurring due to climate change. The land dries out and then suddenly there is flooding. It destroys everything and people have to start again from zero,” says Amugune.

So how can communities continue to access wood fuel without harming the environment and contributing to climate change?

The researchers looked into the question but found that few countries have evaluated this aspect, even though wood fuel has the potential to be a clean and sustainable resource. Martius says the key is good forest management.

“If you have a rotation-based strategy with communities reforesting areas and then harvesting specific areas at alternate times wood fuel can be sustainable,” he says.

This rotation system can help restore the rapidly disappearing landscapes, researchers say. “But we need more research into tree species as well as a lot of planning and control to make that happen,” says Martius.

Read more: An introduction to CIFOR’s global comparative study on REDD+ (GCS-REDD+)


Reforestation and the restoration of ecosystems are key elements to meeting the Paris goals. Forests that are legally protected can provide a positive “carbon sink,” which absorbs more carbon than it emits into the atmosphere.

Scientists say these areas need to be protected from firewood extraction and illegal logging. But only five of the countries examined seemed to recognize the importance of this in their NDCs.

Amugune says communities need to have a good reason to restore degraded landscapes. She points to Uganda where rural communities tend to plant fast-growing species like cyprus and eucalyptus, which can be harvested and sold in a few years.

“These communities need concrete incentives to grow indigenous trees to help restore degraded ecosystems and that requires government policies and good reforestation programs,” she says.

A man stacks wood in Africa. Photo by Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR


Amugune says a real solution involves empowering communities. If they are given the responsibility for their own future then there is a real chance to achieve sustainability.

“I’ve seen NGOs or governments come with a great offer for a community and it’s a good project, but once it ends, the work on the ground dies. We have to find ways that these projects can have a life of their own even after a project ends. That’s the only way they can transform,” she says.

She adds that the research points to more regional cooperation, as many of the countries have the same problem and together they can find joint solutions.

Martius notes that the Paris accord has brought people together from developing and developed countries and from diverse backgrounds, and that means a real debate over solutions to climate change has begun.

“But we need to continue to engage with people, not just hand over reports or studies,” he says. “Above all, we need the right policies and enforcement of those policies. It’s not easy, but if you take a few years to develop and implement the right policy, then you don’t need to worry about the next 100 years.”

By Suzanna Dayne, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

This research is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • Small flame but no fire: Wood fuel in the (Intended) Nationally Determined Contributions of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

Small flame but no fire: Wood fuel in the (Intended) Nationally Determined Contributions of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Woodfuel is extremely important for energy security in Africa. About eighty percent of both rural and urban populations in the 49 countries that comprise South-Saharan (SSA) Africa rely on wood-based biomass to satisfy their energy needs, especially for cooking. Under the Paris Agreement for Climate Change, countries have submitted their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) to the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), to define their national ambitions. After Paris, these have now become legally binding NDCs. Therefore, the role that woodfuel plays in the NDCs of SSA countries needs to be assessed.

We reviewed and assessed INDC/NDCs of a selection of SSA countries to identify how they focus on wood fuel. This paper provides a first analysis of the role that wood fuels play in the NDCs. Only five of the 22 countries analyzed do not mention wood fuels at all. While all of those that do mention roadmaps, only just over half of them offer budgetary considerations, and about half of them identify institutional responsibilities for the woodfuel sector. In many NDCs, woodfuel is seen as a backwater technology, and not the renewable energy source it could be come if sustainably harvested and managed. We find that, overall, next iterations of the NDCs in SSA countries need to become more specific regarding the role of woodfuels in national climate and development policies.

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

Wood fuel not as bad for the environment as previously thought

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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
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This research was supported by DFID KNOWFOR.

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