Wood fuel not as bad for the environment as previously thought

New research shows that wood fuel is just one of multiple drivers of deforestation, and highlights the need for a holistic reappraisal of what is deemed sustainable
Locals burn wood in preparation for honey harvesting in Kapuas Hulu, Kalimantan. Lucy McHugh/CIFOR

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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.

“We’re saying that the studies that have been published so far have not been adequate to inform policy,” she said.

“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.

This topic will feature this week at a CIFOR side event on “Greening the Charcoal Value Chain” at the Committee on Forestry (COFO) World Forest Week, 18-22 July, Rome.


For more information on this topic, please contact Paolo Cerutti at
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