Forests and energy: using wood to fuel a sustainable, green economy

by Eva Muller | FAO
Tuesday, 21 March 2017 09:00 GMT

In this file photo, charcoal burner Zygmunt Furdygiel loads wood into a charcoal furnace at a charcoal making site, in the forest of Bieszczady Mountains, near the village of Baligrod, Poland, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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One in three households, or about 2.4 billion people, rely on wood for heating homes, boiling safe drinking water and cooking nutritious meals

Next time a sleek sports car streaks past you on the highway or a jet aircraft roars overhead, think about this: a world where these are fuelled by wood.

Wood and energy are a natural match and as we mark International Day of Forests on March 21, even the sky holds no limits when we imagine a future powered by woodfuel. In fact, late last year, one North American airline laid claim to launching the world’s first commercial flight using jet fuel made from tree stumps and branches left over after wood-processing – one example of how forestry by-products and residue are being recycled into different forms of wood energy.

Yet, as exciting as this future looks, we must not forget the critical role trees play right now in so many facets of daily life.

One in three households, or about 2.4 billion people, rely on wood for heating homes, boiling safe drinking water and cooking nutritious meals – which tells us how crucial wood is to food security and well-being. Another 65 million people, forced from their homes by disaster or conflicts, also depend on woodfuel for survival. In all, about 50 per cent of wood produced worldwide is used as energy for such basic needs as cooking, heating and generating electricity.

There are other, often tragic, stories behind these numbers. More than 4.3 million people die each year from indoor pollution caused by burning solid fuels including coal and woodfuel  - a toll greater than that caused by malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

In response, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is working with other U.N. agencies to promote clean and efficient wood and charcoal stoves, which cut the amount of indoor pollution while burning less woodfuel. This in turn reduces the burden on the women and girls who, often risking their safety in the process, must sometimes travel long distances to find enough of this fuel for their family’s daily use.

Most importantly, we should not lose sight of the fact that woodfuel is still kinder to the environment than fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Woodfuel, including charcoal, accounts for roughly 40 percent of current global renewable energy supplies – as much as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined. The sustainable production and efficient use of wood clearly has the potential to help us achieve many of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals  – from promoting food security, and gender equality to improving access to energy, advancing economic growth and contributing to sustainable forest management.

The world's forests are also vitally important to combat climate change – and in so doing, help us to meet yet another Sustainable Development Goal. Trees pack a double punch in this regard: they are able to remove and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,  and when used as fuel, they produce lower carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels.

A significant part of our work in FAO's forestry department involves supporting countries to develop their own policies and strategies that will help them use their forests more sustainably while reducing emissions and mitigating climate change.

It is encouraging to see that innovative technologies – like those that turn tree stumps into engine fuel - are growing. Greater investments in these promising new technologies, alongside sustainably managed forests, will be crucial to ensuring that wood thrives as a major source of renewable energy. This in turn will help to ensure a sustainable future and a greener economy.

Eva Muller is the director of the forestry policy and resources division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).