A whopping 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa still relies on charcoal as well as other solid biomass fuels for energy —80 percent when excluding South Africa. The charcoal use generates tiny soot particles that create and exasperate respiratory diseases and contribute to climate change. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than four million people die annually from cooking with biomass. The process also degrades forest cover, which in turn reduces rainfall and contributes to climate change, among other environmental impacts. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Sub-Saharan Africa to avert a charcoal-induced public health and environmental catastrophe and strengthen its energy independence and economic growth at the same time.
Charcoal is used mainly for cooking by the urban and peri-urban poor; firewood by rural populations. Urbanization drives charcoal’s rising demand in Sub-Saharan Africa: a 1 percent increase in urbanization is linked with a 14 percent rise in charcoal consumption. SSA is home to the world’s fastest-growing urban populations, which rose 15 percent from 2007 to 2017 (projected to double in the next 25 years). Adding further fuel to its increasing energy demand, Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is skyrocketing at an annual average of 2.55 percent from 2010 to 2015 with more than half of the world’s population growth expected to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.
As shown in the 2011 figures from the Union of Concerned Scientists, global firewood use is expected to remain flat in the next 20 years while charcoal is expected to continue rising, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The widespread rise in charcoal production brings massive health and environmental tolls:
- Human health: Use of charcoal and other biomass is estimated to result in the premature deaths of 4.3 million people annually due to indoor air pollution. Women and children are the most at risk as indoor cooking with charcoal produces small particulates up to 100 times higher than maximum levels recommended by the WHO —and are impacted by acute respiratory illnesses, cataracts, heart disease, and cancer. Annually, biomass cooking causes three times the number of deaths compared to HIV/AIDS, and more than tuberculosis and malaria combined.
- Ecosystems: As 80 percent of charcoal and firewood is harvested in drylands globally, these areas are especially prone to damage. Sahel farmers have suffered heavy losses in the last decade due to the loss of natural wind breakers caused by charcoal and firewood gathering. Studies have found charcoal production to severely impact tropical forest ecosystem services (e.g., shade, soil and water retention, water flow and quality regulation, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat) as well as to reduce overall ecosystem resilience. Over-harvesting of select species for charcoal results in significant loss of plant diversity and subsequent diminished faunal abundance and biodiversity dependent on forest ecosystems.
- Forest loss and climate change: A 2013 study estimated charcoal to contribute just 7 percent to tropical deforestation but to have far greater impacts via forest degradation (as charcoal producers cut only select species rather than clear cut). The same study estimated greenhouse emissions from producing charcoal at 103.7 mega tons of CO2 equivalent in tropical ecosystems in 2009, which would rise significantly when counting emissions from use. Charcoal is a key driver of the catastrophic global tropical forest loss over the last two decades, shown in the graph below from GFW/WRI. Nowhere is charcoal’s impact more prevalent than Africa, which provides 65 percent of global greenhouse emissions from charcoal production (highlighted below).
What can be done?
Research predicts firewood and charcoal will remain chief energy sources for Sub-Saharan Africa for the foreseeable future unless serious actions are taken forcing the transition to cleaner, renewable energy. According to the International Energy Agency, Sub-Saharan Africa will increase its demand for biomass fuels by 40 percent by 2040. This figure, in conjunction with Sub-Saharan Africa’s predicted burgeoning population, makes it hard to imagine how the world will achieve a switch to 70 to 85 percent renewables by 2040 as recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.
Seen through the lens of climate change and forest conservation, the simplest solution seems to be swift bans on charcoal production as enacted in countries such as Chad, Kenya, and Malawi. Yet despite good intentions, sudden charcoal prohibitions without alternative energy sources have forced poor households dependent on charcoal to burn furniture, cow dung, and even their own homes for energy. In the face of charcoal bans, rural populations producing charcoal for sale to urban populations suffer sharp losses of income for food and household goods, schooling, housing, and medicine. Charcoal rivals other sectors of the national economy in much of Sub-Saharan Africa; for example in Tanzania, it generates far greater revenue than the tea and coffee sectors combined.
For countries like Uganda to start resembling Wakanda, they will need to find ways to both dramatically ramp up supply and demand of renewable energies and make existing charcoal value chains more sustainable. A broad portfolio of strategies exists to tackle the Sub-Saharan Africa charcoal challenge, which will need to be tailored for each context.
Here are some strategies:
1. Improving business-as-usual
- Charcoal production: Much of Sub-Saharan Africa uses outdated and inefficient charcoal production methods. Traditional methods typically yield 15 to 20 percent or less in dry weight—versus a theoretical yield of 50 to 80 percent—and take eight days to produce in industrial kilns. Improved efficiency methods can achieve 40 to 60 percent yields and only take 15 minutes to two hours to produce, thereby potentially helping reduce deforestation and greenhouse emissions.
- Charcoal consumption: Conventional charcoal stoves available in Sub-Saharan Africa are poorly designed and lack insulation and temperature regulation. Improved cookstoves can vastly improve per-unit efficiency by reducing losses via covers and using low thermal conductivity materials. Yet despite decades of promotional campaigns and the distribution of an estimated 53 million clean and/or efficient cookstoves and fuels between 2010 and 2015, new cookstoves have had limited adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to 2018 research on improved cookstove use in Kenya and Zambia, and previous studies such as a 2012 randomized control trial in India, cultural behaviors have posed a barrier to achieving widespread, long-term adoption of stoves and fuels.
2. Disrupting business-as-usual
- Off-grid solar: With 90 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s estimated total potential power capacity and some of the highest levels of Global Horizontal Irradiation (GHI) in the world, solar has great potential to provide clean, renewable energy (as shown in the graph at right based on UNEP’s 2017 Atlas of Africa Energy Resources). On average, photovoltaic panels in Sub-Saharan Africa are able to provide twice as much electricity as in Central Europe, and the lifetime cost of a solar electric cooking system is currently comparable to that of charcoal and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Economic research from 2015 found that the majority of photovoltaic panels upfront costs are invested in batteries, but cost reductions and technology improvements will make monthly cost of solar electric cooking cheaper in a few years than those of charcoal cooking in most developing countries. The challenge then becomes structuring finance so that upfront costs are not prohibitive, such as pay-as-you-go meters that charge daily rates comparable to what users would have paid for charcoal.
- Solar water heating provides a cheap and technologically simple alternative to charcoal. Switching from charcoal- to solar-heated water for bathing is one of the simplest and most cost-effective renewable energy technologies. Equally importantly, residential solar water heaters can be constructed and installed inexpensively using local materials.
- Grid-based electricity: Direct electricity access via a grid significantly reduces costs for electric cookers as users don’t have to pay for batteries (assuming reliable access). A 2013 SEI study of household energy practices in Zambia found that many users prefer electric cookers as they cook more quickly and can be used indoors because they produce less fumes and can be left alone to cook. Though access to electricity has risen across the continent (from 16 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2016, according to the World Bank), many countries will require significant grid expansion for electricity access to become the norm. Mini-grids or stand-alone systems based on solar or other renewables may be the best options in cases of expected low loads, underdeveloped grid infrastructures, excessive development costs, or high diesel transport costs.
- Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG): A mixture of propane and butane, LPG is versatile, portable, often less expensive per month than charcoal, and produces less pollution than kerosene, charcoal, or wood. LPG is increasingly seen as a viable, modern fuel to replace charcoal. When given the choice, women often choose LPG over charcoal or other biomass. As the African LPG market is small and sparse, increasing its adoption would require awareness campaigns, safety regulations and enforcement, and initial public subsidies to support the switch.
- Green energy pioneers: Weaning Sub-Saharan Africa off charcoal will require innovative energy sources and means of delivery. For example, Rwandan entrepreneurs are marketing organic waste-based briquettes and wood pellet-fired cookstoves to provide cleaner, easily transportable energy. A recently invented Kenyan firewood burner maximizes the energy from wood fuel by using dry wood first, producing charcoal for a later meal. Ethiopia opened the first waste-to-energy plant in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, saving 36 hectares of landfill and reducing the release of toxic chemicals and methane while generating 30 percent of Addis Ababa’s household electricity needs and meeting European air quality standards. The growing mobile money sector can enable poor populations to purchase or use non-charcoal stoves with installment payments. In Kenya and Tanzania, pay-as-you-go fuel companies install an LPG stove, cylinder, and meter, and then accept mobile payments, helping consumers to purchase as little as a day’s worth of LPG, for US$0.50, at a time. Smart LPG meters allow companies to automatically arrange delivery of a full cylinder to the home when fuel levels run low.
3. Government policies for improving and disrupting ‘business as usual’
An essential first step towards improving existing charcoal value chains is to revise market regulations to define sustainable sources and methods for charcoal production. For example, since 2002 Ghana’s Energy Commission has instituted guidelines on sustainable charcoal production, whereby only approved sources (sawmill residues or plantations established for charcoal production) may export charcoal. Additionally, programs will need to train traditional charcoal producers to employ efficient methods, develop awareness and disseminate efficient cookstoves, such as under Ghana’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan. Given the weak adoption of improved cookstoves to date, user-centered design is essential to map types of charcoal users and pinpoint where and what kinds of interventions are most needed.
Despite rapidly falling costs and increasing installed capacity for charcoal alternatives such as solar photovoltaic panels in Sub-Saharan Africa (as shown in the 2016 figures below from IRENA), government policies are critical to promote these alternatives to their full potential. At a minimum, governments looking to raise revenues through import taxes should avoid taxing imports of materials and parts needed for solar or LPG, which would undercut the price advantage of these energy systems over charcoal. More proactively, governments can help by disseminating information and security to buyers of alternative energy systems. This can include testing equipment to make sure it meets standards (like the Energy Star efficiency certification program in the United States) and awareness campaigns to inform buyers what to look for in systems and how to use them. To help users avoid upfront costs for charcoal alternatives, governments can also support development of mobile money financing schemes, or at a minimum, explicitly make them legal.
Identification and mapping of charcoal users will facilitate adoption of alternatives to power clean cookstoves either via grid or off-grid electricity access. Charcoal use reduction awareness and behavior change communications focused in urban areas, food vendors, and catering facilities have been found successful in encouraging adoption of charcoal alternatives. Such programs need to assess potential economic and social barriers to large-scale market diffusion, such as payback times, technical complexity and public awareness and trust in the technology. To avoid forming cultural barriers of charcoal alternatives as being seen as inferior, programs should avoid only targeting such energy systems to poor classes.
Though currently the charcoal business-as-usual outlook isn’t pretty for Sub-Saharan Africa, hope is not lost. With support from governments, civil society, and private sector entrepreneurs via the methods outlined above, solar power and other charcoal alternatives can help reduce deforestation, damage to women’s health, and mitigate climate change.
By John Costenbader and Gwen Andersen