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April 07, 2005


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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Majid Ezzati, assistant professor of international health at HSPH, has co-authored a study showing that promoting cleaner, more efficient technologies for producing charcoal in Africa can save millions of lives. (Staff file photo Kris Snibbe)

Benefits of clean fuel in Africa would be enormous

HSPH study urges cleaner coal production

By Kevin Myron
HSPH Communications

A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), finds that promoting cleaner, more efficient technologies for producing charcoal in Africa can save millions of lives and have significant climate change and development benefits. The findings appear in the April 1 issue of the journal Science.

The African continent depends on wood and charcoal for cooking and heating homes. In 2000, nearly 470 million tons of wood were consumed in homes in sub-Saharan Africa in the form of firewood and charcoal, more wood per capita than any other region in the world. More than 1.6 million people, primarily women and children, die prematurely each year worldwide (400,000 in sub-Saharan Africa) from respiratory diseases caused by the pollution from such fires. The study finds that smoke from wood fires used for cooking will cause an estimated 10 million premature deaths among women and children by 2030 in Africa and release about 7 billion tons of carbon in the form of greenhouse gases to the environment by 2050, about 6 percent of the total expected greenhouse gases from the continent.

The authors assessed multiple strategies to reduce mortality as well as greenhouse gas emissions from household fuel sources. They gathered a large database of current fuel use in African nations and defined multiple scenarios for future fuel use by varying the mix of wood, charcoal, and petroleum-based fuels used in households and improving the sustainability of wood harvesting and charcoal production techniques.

Robert Bailis, graduate student at the Energy and Resources Group at University of California, Berkeley and the lead author of the paper, said, "If the rapid urbanization continues and all signs indicate that it will, then the trend is going to be toward greater charcoal use in Africa. It's the most affordable source of household energy. But whichever path Africa takes, we are saying there are multiple consequences, including preventable deaths and pollution emissions. Decisions made now or in the near future are going to have large effects on health and environmental outcomes in the distant future."

The results of the study show that the best situation in Africa would be to transition from biomass fuels to petroleum-based fossil fuels such as kerosene and liquid propane gas, which can prevent between 1.3 and 3.7 million premature deaths, depending on the speed of transition. The researchers argue, however, that current economic conditions and energy infrastructure in Africa make petroleum-based fossil fuels an unlikely option. "If you switch everyone off the dirtiest fuels to burning clean fossil fuels, you get the biggest health benefit," acknowledged Daniel Kammen, the Class of 1935 Distinguished Chair of Energy at University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the paper. He continued, "But the economic cost to most African nations - collectively the poorest region of the globe - of that switch is impossible."

Charcoal burns cleaner and produces less indoor pollution than wood, but the current inefficient production method in Africa is one of the most polluting for the global environment and is potentially destructive to African forests. The researchers' analysis shows that charcoal can provide comparable health benefits of between 1 million and 2.8 million avoided deaths. Majid Ezzati, assistant professor of international health at HSPH and a co-author of the paper added, "It's a lot easier to disseminate charcoal in large scale than fossil fuels, because there is a well-developed market and you don't need expensive infrastructure like refineries and processing. So, even though fossil fuels are in fact better for health and better for climate, they are more expensive and a lot harder to get out."

However, scenarios that envision large shifts to charcoal without improvements in harvesting and production lead to severe increases in greenhouse gas emissions, with more than 15 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere by 2050. "Most charcoal is produced in Africa by one or two guys going out in the woods, almost always without a permit and on somebody else's land, cutting down a tree or two, chopping it up, lighting it, covering it with dirt, and then hovering around it for two to four while it becomes charcoal," Kammen said. "It's no surprise it's not generally a high-efficiency operation." The authors found that by creating the technological and policy tools for transitioning to higher-efficiency charcoal production technologies and sustainable harvesting, like those used today in Brazil and Thailand, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 45-66 percent.

The researchers conclude that helping African nations make the transition to clean charcoal without drastically increasing pollution and decimating tropical forests would be an excellent way to achieve several of the United Nations' "millennium development goals," among them reducing child mortality and ensuring gender equity and environmental sustainability. In addition, these steps are good ways to invest in development of the African continent as promised at the 2005 World Economic Forum and the recent G8 summit. Ezzati said, "This study shows that choosing energy technologies with an eye toward improving health and quality of life in one of the world's most impoverished areas offers us opportunity to significantly reduce premature deaths, especially among women and children."

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