A surging population in Africa seeking to provide energy for cooking needs has led to massive environmental damage, including soil degradation.
Worldwide deforestation accounts for 25-30 percent of annual CO2 global emissions, the result of the burning of brushland for subsistence agriculture and wood fires used for cooking.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Africa, where a 2007 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forest report stated, “in Africa, almost 90 percent of all (forest) wood removals are used for energy.” To give one example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fuel wood represents 91.5 percent of energy consumption. Scientists predict that the burning of wood fuel by African households by 2050 will release 6.7 billion tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
So, how to slow this massive assault on Africa’s trees?
The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) thinks that it has a partial – solution – substitute bamboo for forest wood in producing charcoal.
On 2 December, speaking at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa INBAR Director-General Dr Coosje Hoogendoorn said, "Bamboo, the perfect biomass grass, grows naturally across Africa and presents a viable cleaner and sustainable alternative to wood fuel. Without such an alternative, wood charcoal will remain the primary household energy source for decades to come with disastrous consequences."
Sub-Saharan Africa has over 2.75 million hectares of bamboo forest, equivalent to roughly 4 percent of the continent’s total forest cover. Green Belt Movement, an African tree-planting advocacy group executive director Karanja Njoroge observed, "Bamboo grows naturally across Africa's diverse landscapes, but unlike trees, it regrows after harvest and lends itself very well for energy plantations on degraded lands."
Adding to bamboo’s attractiveness as an alternative fuel source, while it takes seven to ten tons of raw wood to produce a single ton of wood charcoal, in contrast the entire bamboo plant, including the stem, branch and its rhizome, can be used to produce charcoal, making it highly resource-efficient with limited wastage, while its high caloric heating value makes it an efficient fuel. Furthermore, bamboo is one of the planet’s fastest-growing plants, with many tropical bamboos capable of being harvested within three years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, China is a global leader in the production and use of bamboo charcoal, produced through the controlled burning of bamboo in kilns and the sector is now worth an estimated $1 billion annually. INBAR’s Bamboo as Sustainable Biomass Energy initiative is working in tandem with Chinese partners, including the Nanjing Forestry University and WENZHAO Bamboo Charcoal Co. to transfer China’s advanced bamboo charcoal technologies to sub-Saharan Africa.
INBAR has already proved the viability of the concept in sub-Saharan Africa, as in 2009 it began a four year project funded by the European Commission (EC) and the Common Fund for Commodities to begin to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as an alternative to timber charcoal, initially in Ethiopia and Ghana. The project partners include Ethiopia’s Rural Energy Development and Promotion Center (EREDPC) and Federal Micro and Small Enterprises Development Agency (FeMSEDA), while Ghana partners include Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG) and the Bamboo and Rattan Development Program (BARADEP), working in conjunction with China’s Nanjing Forestry University (NFU).
The project’s objectives now include increasing the range of useable bamboos available in each country, establishing bamboo charcoal Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) and assisting government and civil society organizations to support bamboo firewood and charcoal production and use.
The bamboo charcoal fuel initiative dovetails closely into several other programs designed to reorient Africa’s fuel needs. The United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) is taking an active role in providing clean cook stoves to African rural populations. Clean cook stoves are helping to decrease the use of fuel wood and promote the sustainability of local resources by using 50 to 70 percent less wood or charcoal fuel.
A second program, introduced in September 2010 by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and partially supported by the United Nations Foundation, the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves, seeks to have 100 million African homes adopt clean cook stoves by 2020.
While in developed countries the debate is over the cost of massive renewable energy projects to keep the lights on and support advanced standards of living, in Africa the ambitions are more modest, to provide a warm meal while lessening environmental damage. Hoogendoorn expressed concerns that without such projects, the continued widespread indoor use in Africa of forest wood charcoal as a household fuel could cause 10 million premature deaths by 2030, primarily of women and children from smoke inhalation.
Restoring the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving the lives of infants and women – what’s not to like about this initiative?
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com