Charcoal Kills 2 Million People & Vast Swaths of Forest Every Year. Can Biofuel Stop the Carnage?

Across Africa, forests are disappearing at twice the worldwide average rate. As of 2009, that rate clocked in at a mind-bending 4 million hectares, or about 15,400 square miles of lost forest, per year. One of the major forces feeding that devastation is likely unknown to denizens of the developed world—the demand for charcoal. Some 80% of Africans still rely on solid-based fuels like wood, dung, and especially charcoal, for cooking. And the still-growing demand for charcoal means that razing forests for supply is now booming business, even in protected areas.

Charcoal begets myriad other ills as well, of course. Burning it releases carbon into the atmosphere, albeit on a level comparatively tiny to industrial coal-fired power plants. Worse, it's often burned indoors, in poorly ventilated family dwellings, where the smoke has disastrous health impacts. Especially on young children. The U.N. estimates that smoke inhaled in this way leads to 1.9 million deaths a year in the developing world.

Clearly, charcoal is the root of a deeply destructive problem, which is why NGOs, the U.N., and national governments have been trying to combat its use for years. They've introduced a bevy of cleaner cookstoves, perhaps most famously under the banner of an initiative spearheaded by Hilary Clinton, the Global Alliance for Cleaner Cookstoves. But progress has been middling. As in richer countries, coal is simply cheaper than most alternatives—36% of the billion plus Africans live on less than a dollar a day, and more expensive, cleaner cookstoves aren't a priority.

But with deaths from respiratory disease and deforestation mounting, it's fair to say that there's an urgent need for action. And right now, I'm in Mozambique, one of the poorest nations in Africa, to take a closer look at one promising solution. CleanStar Mozambique, a for-profit venture, aims to provide a viable alternative to charcoal whilst increasing the income of local farmers. They've flown me out here to give the whole nascent operation a look.

Here's the pitch: CleanStar, whose primary partner is Novozymes, the world's largest industrial enzymes producer, will help farmers cultivate a variety of crops in a novel, sustainable manner. A big portion of those crops will be cassava, a starchy, carbohydrate-rich indigenous plant. Farmers can then sell the cassava to CleanStar, which will refine the yield into ethanol, for use as a clean-burning cooking fuel. Company reps say that farmers who do so can quadruple their income. Next, CleanStar will then distribute the fuel to sellers in Maputo, which is by far Mozambique's largest city. Mozambicans will have to buy a compatible cookstove, which is more expensive than the traditional model, but they last longer, burn cleaner, and make less of a mess. Thus far, they're proving popular to those who've been introduced to them. The best part is, CleanStar insists, is that the whole model can be replicated, and put to use elsewhere.

Got all that? CleanStar is looking to address (at least) two major plights with the same venture. There's so much potential social value added here, and it's propelled by such an unorthodox, presumptively profit-turning business model, that the development crowd is buzzing—representatives for the project have been invited to speak at the upcoming Rio +20 conference, Bank of America is a major investor, and this week's grand opening of the biofuel plant will be attended by UN dignitaries, NGOs, CEOs of multinational corporations, and international media.

And it all looks good on paper. Really good. But the looming question is—will it work? Will Mozambicans be willing to buy the more expensive cookstove? Might the supply chain prove overly vulnerable? Is a corporate-backed for-profit business the best way to address the abomination of charcoal? I'll seek to answer these questions, as well as so many others, as the tour carries on. So stay tuned.

Tags: Africa | Coal | Deforestation


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