Developing biofuel-based regenerative supply systems can deliver much-needed energy to consumers in the global south and prevent the collapse of ecosystems, while contributing to the efficiency of a circular bioeconomy, according to scientists.
Biofuels – particularly wood and charcoal – are the sole source of energy for at least 2.6 billion people worldwide, mainly in Africa and Asia, where crop residues are also burned for such uses as cooking, heat, light and to power small-scale industries.
Throughout the global south, while wood remains the dominant source of energy, room exists to absorb other commonly used and available vegetation in restoration strategies, scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) say.
Considered a salve to repair damage done by unsustainable extractive and agricultural activities, forest and landscape restoration (FLR) initiatives must take into account the fact that high demand for biofuels will continue due to a widespread lack of alternatives or they will be unlikely to fully succeed.
As the international effort to restore deforested and degraded land becomes more concentrated ahead of the launch of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 in June, logistics for the large-scale enterprise are still being worked out.
Widespread deforestation and land degradation are responsible for about a quarter of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions each year. Since forest ecosystems have a vast carbon storage capacity, conservation and restoration are central to nature-based solutions for keeping global warming in check.
A total of 74 pledges to restore more than 210 million hectares of land have already been made by 61 countries under the Bonn Challenge, a voluntary initiative to restore 350 million hectares of land by 2030 under the New York Declaration on Forests, which was agreed during U.N. climate talks in 2014.
In order to achieve these goals, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is vital to consider that in the medium and long term, billions of people will still require access to wood fuel to meet their energy needs, said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist at CIFOR.
“To date, it’s an issue that’s barely been touched on when implementing forest and landscape restoration” he said in a journal article published in Conservation Science and Practice. “The idea of strategically inserting wood fuel production and use into forest and landscape restoration initiatives has existed for many years but has rarely been applied in practice.”
FLR occurs through the integration of a range of activities, which can involve promoting natural forest regrowth, conserving native forests, establishing commercial plantations and agroforestry systems with the participation of stakeholders.
“If we want to enhance social inclusiveness while introducing restoration measures, initiatives must acknowledge the continually increasing wood fuel demand, while recognizing that most wood fuel harvests are unsustainable and contribute to forest degradation,” Guariguata said.
More sustainable wood production within a holistic approach to forest restoration translates into livelihood and health benefits to local communities, he added. “It could help reduce the amount of time people, particularly women and girls, spend gathering wood and carrying it home to use for fuel while helping to reduce over-harvesting of fuelwood within native forests.”
The idea is that by adopting a FLR approach, fuelwood production and use could slowly shift from pervasive, top-down regulatory approaches that dominate the fuelwood sector while largely disregarding their sustainable management.
To meet these challenges, Guariguata and co-author Celia Harvey propose adopting three main strategies, including increasing the amount of available woody biomass so it meets local and market demand through tree planting, improving the efficiency of charcoal and kiln stoves to reduce demand and restricting the extraction of wood fuel from natural forests to reduce overall degradation.
In an article in Sustainability led by Lalisa Duguma, a leading expert in sustainable landscapes and integrated climate actions scientists with World Agroforestry (ICRAF), scientists also raise the specter of biofuel-dependent communities being pushed further into energy poverty due to weak consideration of the existing potential to provide energy to the wider community.
The paper says that through strategic design and implementation, about 2.5 billion people would benefit from the restoration of sparsely vegetated areas, degraded forests and savannas. Initiatives would get a boost from the promotion of agroforestry in degraded farmlands and by using agricultural residue as a source of biofuel.
In Africa, for example, a growing list of countries are introducing initiatives to encourage the development of sustainable bioenergy policies and regulations. Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa have established national monitoring strategies for harnessing bioenergy potential and to address risks.
Developing effective policies also means including a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, bioenergy producers and distributors.
“Ecosystem restoration must be balanced to accommodate all stakeholders in any given landscape to ensure success,” Duguma said.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 87 percent of energy derives from biomass and is directly dependent on ecosystems, but this region is under huge pressure from severe ecosystem degradation and deterioration.
While some critics have opposed the use of crop residues as a source of bioenergy basing their argument on the notion that it removes nutrients from the farm, it is important to see the issue in perspective, Duguma said, because in the tropics, crop stubble in the fields is typically burned to make way for the next crop to be planted on the farm.
“Although there are some detractors, besides other energy sourcing options we must also consider the effective and wise use of agricultural residues to help make energy supply sustainable,” Duguma said. “Sparsely vegetated areas hold huge potential for generating bioenergy after restoration.”
But wood also has a key role to play in restoration initiatives, he added. Three quarters of global wood fuel production and consumption is in Africa and Asia — 35 and 39 percent respectively. The tropics and subtropics produce over 88 percent of the global share of wood fuel, according to some statistical databases.
If vegetation and deadwood are allowed to decompose on the forest floor, they enrich soil, but since this litter is often collected for energy use, the soil becomes degraded. When deadwood and other forms of vegetation run out, people begin to cut larger shrubs and trees, further compromising ecosystem health.
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