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.”