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Sitting on bundles of cooking fuelwood at Balukhali Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
©FAO/Sergio Rivero

The hidden power of wood fuel

The past century and a half of using fossil fuels is an anomaly against the timeline of human history.

Wood provides more energy than solar, hydroelectric or wind, and represents about 40 percent of the global renewable energy supply. It is equally important for SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

FAO and its partner agencies, Eurostat, ITTO and UNECE, annually solicit data on removals of wood from forests for fuel, including wood for charcoal, and wood charcoal production from 207 countries. Wood fuel removals can be categorized by source: coniferous, from wood whose leaves do not fall off in the winter, most often found in colder climates; or non-coniferous, including tropical and non-tropical hardwoods.

Challenges in quantifying wood used as fuel

The formal data collection process can accurately capture the amount of wood pellets used for industrial energy production and single-family residential heating, as well as the amount of legally harvested trees intended for wood charcoal production. It is less capable of capturing data on informally gathered wood fuel, such as branches collected from the forest adjacent to a village, or illegally produced wood charcoal. These wood energy removals frequently elude registration, leading to a lack of reliable data.

And yet, it is precisely these data that describe the relationship between forests and the world’s most vulnerable people. Worldwide, around 2.4 billion people still cook using fuels such as wood and kerosene, mostly in Africa. Illegal or unsustainable wood harvesting for energy production negates progress towards SDG 15, and in particular Target 15.2, which promotes sustainable management and a halt to deforestation.

A new model for counting the global use of wood fuel

In 2001, a statistical model was built to estimate wood fuel removals and wood charcoal production. As more information and statistical tools emerged over the following decades, and the ratio of traceable versus hard-to-trace usage became better known, the model needed updating. In 2020, a taskforce was formed to this end, which included partners from academia, non-governmental organizations, and leading international stakeholders.

Updating the model has involved systematically searching for new data points and applying machine-learning approaches for building statistical models. When the new model is released, it will be possible to estimate more accurately how much wood, globally, is removed from forests. We will have a sharper sense of how many people are employed in harvesting and producing wood fuel. We will better understand how much renewable energy comes from wood. And we will be able to calculate how the amount of wood removed annually affects carbon sequestration.

This, however, will not be the end of the road. Improving the capacity to collect data on domestic wood fuel use through household surveys will help us further hone our estimates. We know that wood fuel is, in many ways, the centre of the world: data will enable us to manage this resource now and for the future.

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