Three people looking at charcoal for sale at a market in Ambovombe, Madagascar
Fuel from the forest: charcoal for sale at a market in Ambovombe, Madagascar © Charlie Bibby/FT

In the central market of Ambovombe, a provincial capital in southern Madagascar, traders squat on the ground in front of heaps of charcoal. In towns and cities across the island, it is the favoured cooking fuel, valued for its intense heat and slow-burning properties.

And that is why — in what remains of the forests of Madagascar’s drought-prone south, several hours’ walk from the denuded landscape next to the main road — people scratch out a living by chopping down trees and burning them to produce charcoal briquettes.

Though much of the trade is illegal, and blamed for the country’s rampant deforestation and soil degradation, charcoal is still openly sold by the roadside and in towns and cities. In more rural areas, the preferred cooking fuel is firewood.

The effects on the landscape have been dramatic. “Before we were born, there were forests here when our grandfathers were children,” says Tsilahara Monja, surveying the parched red earth that, in years of little rain, struggles to produce a crop. “But they cut them all down back then,” he explains — adding that the lack of trees had contributed to the vicious dust storms, known as tiomena, that blight the region.

In cities throughout much of Africa, where nearly half of the rapidly growing population now lives, charcoal is the main cooking fuel. Only the wealthiest people use gas or electricity.

Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, was once surprised when visiting Malawi in east Africa to see bicycle after bicycle and truck after truck loaded with charcoal driving to Lilongwe, the capital. “I asked the minister of energy, how long do you think it’s going to take for us to have no forest left in Malawi?” he recalled in a recent interview. “I thought he was gonna say 10 years. He said three.”

If deforestation is a regional problem for countries like Malawi and Madagascar, it is a planetary threat in central Africa, home to the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s largest forestry system after the Amazon. Sometimes referred to as the “lungs of Africa”, the rainforest, which cover at least 240mn hectares according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, forms a carbon sink equivalent to six years of global carbon emissions.

Those forests are relatively well preserved in Gabon, a net absorber of carbon, whose forests sequester about one-third of the carbon each year that France emits. Gabon is relatively wealthy and thinly populated, with a population of 2mn in a country roughly the size of Britain. Unusually, most people use gas to cook, not charcoal, and laws against logging are relatively strict.

But, in the Democratic Republic of Congo — a much bigger and poorer country of 90mn people — the rate of deforestation has reached nearly 500,000 hectares annually, according to Global Forest Watch. In many African countries, including DRC, deforestation rather than energy production for electricity or industry, is the biggest cause of carbon emissions. According to calculations by McKinsey, at least 40 per cent of Africa’s carbon emissions are the result of human-induced land use (such as for settlement and agriculture) and changes in land use, to which deforestation is a major contributor.

In a report, McKinsey wrote: “In sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 950mn people rely on wood and charcoal for cooking — a number that is expected to reach 1.7bn by 2050 — and 50 per cent of residential emissions are from cooking, a shift to clean cooking could be transformational.”

The destruction of forest for charcoal and firewood is not just a direct source of carbon emissions. It also endangers rain patterns that are regulated by forest systems and leads to loss of topsoil — as has happened in parts of Madagascar.

Moreover, charcoal is dangerous to those who use it. The ADB estimates that some 300,000 women and 300,000 children die each year from inhaling damaging particles from charcoal, says Adesina.

The ADB is now supporting private equity funds, such as Spark+, that invest in projects to replace charcoal with biomass, biogas, ethanol, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cooking fuel. However, Adesina and others complain that western banks, including development finance institutions (DFIs), are reluctant to fund LPG projects because of western government bans on supporting fossil fuel investments. “What we don’t talk about, but should talk about, is avoided emissions,” he says. “If I am using gas for cooking, I am avoiding having to cut down trees.”

A new crop of companies, including Koko Networks and non-profit Stichting Modern Cooking, are seeking to develop alternatives to charcoal. Some, like Kenya-based Burn Manufacturing, have developed stoves that use charcoal but burn it more slowly. Koko’s solution is more radical: it supplies ethanol cooking fuel to poor urban households in east Africa, cutting out the need for charcoal use altogether. It makes a profit by selling the resulting carbon credits for avoided emissions.

Lee White, Gabon’s environment minister, argues that the gas widely used for cooking in his country may be the most practical solution, at least in the medium term. “Until we have affordable, widely available renewable energy for cooking, then gas is probably the best transition fuel,” he says. “It solves the deforestation and the health issues related to charcoal and may result in decreased emissions.”

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