Woodfuel causes deforestation in Congo Basin yet is potential renewable energy source

REDD+ initiatives may provide incentive for more sustainable energy approaches.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (11 April, 2012)_Woodfuel overexploitation resulting from high dependency on the resource in Africa’s Congo Basin is causing degradation and deforestation near areas with high demand yet it remains a potential renewable energy supply, a study notes.

“Woodfuel is a potential renewable energy thanks to the managed or spontaneous regeneration and growth of woody resources,” said CIFOR associate researcher Jolien Schure and co-author of Contribution of woodfuel to meet the energy needs of the population of Central Africa: prospects for sustainable management of available resources.

“Initiatives for woodfuel plantations and agroforestry systems that include trees for fuel can provide sustainable sources for wood energy.”

Improving efficiency at both producer and consumer levels can improve the renewable character of the resource.

Fuelwood and charcoal represented 90 percent of all wood harvested from African forests, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in 2011 as cited in the CIFOR report. Unsustainable practices in the Central African region are mostly observed in peri-urban areas – those that adjoin urban places –, savannah zones and around protected forest areas.

Woodfuel is a lean source of energy when it is produced sustainably. When wood is burned, the same amount of carbon that was absorbed over its lifespan is emitted. A tree absorbs as much carbon as it releases, so as long as new trees continue to grow in place of those used for fuel, the relative amounts of carbon emitted into the atmosphere will be stable.

Pointe-noire, the economic center of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has more than two decades of experience with industrial woodfuel plantations. It uses the excess of clonal eucalyptus plantations that produce logs and paper wood chips for exportation as woodfuel for the urban population.

The report estimates that woodfuel supply from these eucalyptus plantations near Pointe-noire avoids more than 1,000 hectares of deforestation of natural forests per year.

Schure said, however, that it was important that moves toward greener measures consider the livelihoods depending on the sector from the supply to the demand side.

More than 300 000 people work in woodfuel production and trade in the city of Kinshasa, Congo. Woodfuel income provides producers with the capital needed to invest in agriculture, livestock and fishing, for example.

“Future plans for energy and development need to consider the potential that woodfuel markets offer for poverty reduction, especially concerning producers who form the majority of actors involved,” said Schure.

The supply of woodfuel Congo is large. The country produced an estimated 54.7 million tons of woodfuel (75.4 million cubic meters) in 2009, representing 94 percent of its total roundwood production, according to 2011 FAO ForeSTAT data.

The 4.9 million cubic meters of woodfuel generated for the cities of Kinshasa and Kisangani even exceeds the volume of official national timber production by more than 12 times.

Demand is also high, with 83 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa using woodfuel for cooking. Businesses such as bakeries, blacksmiths, breweries, restaurants and brick makers also depend on woodfuel.

Reducing carbon Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) provides momentum to support a sustainable woodfuel sector.

“Climate change policies can integrate carbon sequestration at the production level,” Schure said.

He added that planting acacia trees at Bateke Plateau contributed to reforestation of this area and its system of rotational growth simultaneously supplied charcoal to Kinshasa.

“There are also emission efficiencies to be gained at the consumption level by using more efficient cooking stoves. We need to understand why people have not adopted these stoves yet.” 

Any formal measures to transform woodfuel into a renewable energy source should consider existing traditional systems.

“As most access to tree resources is through customary land rights, any intervention in the woodfuel sector needs to take the strong role of traditional local authorities into account,” Schure said.

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