“…It would be as inappropriate to ban charcoal as to ban people from living in homes with single-brick walls. Both are a reality – and that’s where sustainability has to start.” — Anne Wheldon, Ashden Knowledge and Research Manager
For geeks toiling feverishly in the obscurity of the solid biomass energy underworld — i.e.: those individuals and organizations focused on delivering better stoves and fuels to people who depend on wood and charcoal for their daily cooking and heating needs — getting an Ashden Award the equivalent of getting an Oscar or a Grammy. [Full disclosure: at The Charcoal Project we bask in the warm glow of having an Ashden Award-recipient as a Board member.]
In any case, the blog post below by Anne Wheldon, Ashden’s Knowledge and Research Manager, eloquently identifies the long overlooked reality of the developing world, and it’s that, yes, we all want societies to have access to cleaner-burning fuels like natural gas or even zero-emissions renewables for cooking and heating. But the reality is that charcoal consumption is set to increase over the coming decades, which, under a Business As Usual scenario, brings with it a slew of problems. This growth in consumption will happen even as societies in developing nations become wealthier. That’s because the demand for charcoal is set to rise as a result of growing urban population due to rural-urban migrations and simple population growth.
But aren’t there plans to move people towards increased access to electricity? Yes. And we should be thrilled that President Barack Obama and others have called for crash programs to light up Africa and bring electricity to all people of the developing world. But the reality is that using electricity to cook is not an efficient use of the resource. And even if it were, it’s going to take many years before the goal of sustainable energy for all is achieved
What’s needed is a two-prong approach.
1. The first one should continue to focus on increased access to electricity for all the reasons we know, like illumination, communication (internet and mobile phones), refrigeration (for medicines and food security), and powering entrepreneurship.
2. The second part of the program — which is the part that’s missing and which the Ashden Awards recognized this year — should focus on improved access to efficient combustion (stoves and charcoal making kilns) and renewable solid biomass fuels (fuels made from sustainably harvested feedstock, be they managed forests, agricultural waste, or other sustainable sources).
South of the Sahara, charcoal is a largely unregulated $10 billion industry employing several million people. This sector is growing. Under a Business As Usual scenario, this growth poses a number of a challenges. But with coordinated policies and investments, this sector offers many opportunities. And if you’re a businessman, forget about the clean cookstove business alone: you’ve got to think energy supply chain.
After four years of running the The Charcoal Project and talking to countless consumers, producers, policy-makers, development workers, stove-makers, and small business-owners on the ground in Africa and around the world, there’s no question in our minds that investments in better policies and better technologies could make the charcoal sector the most dynamic renewable energy sector in Africa. This is the big missing piece in the development agenda. And it’s up to all of us solid biomass energy and combustion geeks to work together to get it right. So, thank you Anne Wheldon for focusing attention to this issue.
PS — If you want to know more about why we think this, check out The Charcoal Project-sponsored Special Issue on Charcoal published by Energy for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, we are not able to make the publication available online due to contractual obligations. But we do have a few hard copies available. Drop us a line at info at charcoalproject dot org.