Why we shouldn’t ban charcoal

By Julia Hawkins, Ashden PR and Digital Media Manager

By Anne Wheldon, Ashden Knowledge and Research Manager 

From a global perspective, cooking on charcoal is hugely wasteful. About ten tonnes of wood are used to make just one tonne of charcoal. That wood often comes from trees that are cut down and not replaced, contributing to deforestation and forest degradation that accelerate climate change and have devastating effects on wildlife and humans.

And that’s not even looking at the actual process of burning wood to make charcoal. This doesn’t just waste energy, it also results in the emission of highly potent, climate-warming hydrocarbon gases.

So why does a green award like Ashden recognise and support organisations and businesses that work closely with this polluting and inefficient fuel? Surely we should instead be pushing for a global charcoal ban?

Charcoal looks different at a local level

Because at a local level, charcoal looks very different.

Charcoal has real advantages for the people who cook with it. For a start, it’s cleaner to use than wood and easier to transport. It’s also cheaper than liquid petroleum gas (LPG) or kerosene, the fossil-fuel alternatives. So it can be a significant – if often illegal – part of the local economy.

As Juan Sève, Ashden finalist WWF-DRC Programme Manager said: “Goma simply wouldn’t exist without charcoal.”

So it would be as inappropriate to ban charcoal as to ban people from living in homes with single-brick walls. Both are a reality – and that’s where sustainability has to start.

Rather than ignoring reality, a far more pragmatic approach is needed to reduce the impact of charcoal on our forests and our climate. This means taking a holistic look at both the supply and demand side of the equation.

And in 2013 we have Ashden finalists that are doing just that.

Making charcoal supply more sustainable is key

On the supply side, Ashden finalist Cookswell Jikos in Kenya has made sustainable charcoal production central to its whole business model, as reflected in its “seed to ash” motto. It has developed small kilns so that charcoal can be produced from wood thinnings, so producers don’t have to cut down whole trees.

On my judging visit with CEO Teddy Kinyanjui, we met a kiln user and saw how pruning a few trees in the back yard filled the kiln to make enough charcoal for three days of cooking.

Another approach to making production more sustainable is being adopted by WWF-DRC. It is helping farmers grow small plots of trees to provide a sustainable supply of wood for charcoal. This will ease the pressure on the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and home of the highly endangered mountain gorilla. It will also provide a new source of income generation for the farmers.

Reducing demand for charcoal has benefits for people and planet

Ashden finalists are also working on the demand side. D&E Green Enterprises in Haiti, WWF-DRC and Cookswell Jikos in Kenya all make and sell improved cookstoves which cook more quickly and use much less charcoal. And Impact Carbon is working with improved charcoal cookstove manufacturers in Uganda. 

All of them are taking a pragmatic approach – not ‘reinventing the stove’, but adapting existing designs for local tastes and for large-scale local production. Halving charcoal use in this way has huge benefits for preserving fragile forests.

And of course, aside from the environmental benefits, reducing charcoal use also helps improve lives. For a start, less charcoal smoke means less pollution and healthier homes. And spending on charcoal uses up as much as a fifth of sorely stretched household budgets in countries like Haiti or DRC.

So a cookstove that halves charcoal use becomes a life-transforming product, freeing up vital cash to put food on the table and educate children.  

As Haitian Celimene Santprume says: “I cannot think of a way to make it better – my stove cooks fast, uses less charcoal – what more do you want?”

So we shouldn’t be banning charcoal. Instead, we should be recognising and supporting pragmatic approaches that are making cooking with charcoal less costly – both for individual households and for the environment as a whole.

I’m looking forward to the Ashden Conference on 19 June, where some of our finalists working with charcoal will be able to share their ideas and experiences with us – and no doubt with each other –  to help spread knowledge about how to make charcoal more sustainable.