OPINION:Let us rethink our charcoal and firewood dependency

OPINION:Let us rethink our charcoal and firewood dependency
Patricia Nanteza

By Patricia Nanteza

The United Nations has officially declared January 26 as the International Day for Clean Energy, marking a pivotal moment in the pursuit of sustainable energy solutions.

At wePlanet Africa, we welcome this initiative with enthusiasm, recognizing that clean and affordable energy is not merely an item to check off SDG7 – it forms the foundation of our entire economy, influencing agriculture, education, industry, transportation, and health.

As we commemorate the inaugural International Day of Clean Energy, I would  like to share some stark realities about energy in Uganda.

As we celebrate the very first International Day of Clean Energy, allow me to bring you some very grim facts about energy in Africa, specifically Uganda.

Disclaimer: we should not lose hope because when one is at the bottom of the pit, the only way out.. A beacon of hope is shining our way. Much of the information I share is drawn from a 2019 World Bank report on wood fuel in Uganda.

According to Uganda's Statistical Abstract, wood fuel (firewood and charcoal) accounted for 87% of all households' energy needs in 2019, underscoring its importance for the country's energy security.

Consequently, wood fuel is the leading cause of deforestation in the country. Additionally, charcoal and firewood contribute significantly to indoor air pollution, resulting in approximately 600,000 deaths annually in Africa.

In response to these challenges, wePlanet Africa has initiated the "Switch On Africa" campaign, calling upon Africans to pledge to reduce their charcoal usage.

Why pledge to reduce charcoal use

While governments can use policies to ban charcoal, we know that lasting behavioral change is voluntary and often slow-paced.

Therefore, on this International Day of Clean Energy, we urge you to voluntarily commit to reducing your charcoal usage by 50% and transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, such as Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) and electricity.

Why LPG?

LPG, while cleaner than charcoal and firewood, is not the destination in the clean energy transition. LPG is a fossil fuel thus not clean, but it a lesser evil than wood fuel thus a worthwhile transitionary fuel source.

Ultimately, our goal is a country and continent powered by clean energy sources like hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear, aligning with the Uganda government's plan for universal electrification by 2050.

Why do Ugandans love charcoal?

Cultural Preference: Many traditional foods require steaming and others slow cooking (kubobera), which is a beloved practice. We acknowledge this and thus propose a 50% reduction in charcoal use, not a complete elimination.

Affordable Energy Alternatives: Not everyone cooks for extended periods, and LPG and electricity could be viable alternatives if made affordable.

An ongoing wePlanet Africa study aims to establish the cost variation between charcoal and LPG.

Our hypothesis is that LPG could be cheaper than charcoal financially and socially. The environmental and health implications of charcoal are so high that we cannot justify continued heavy reliance.

A study showed that charcoal from a 7-year old tree is used by an average family for 14 days. This means that every fortnight an average family of seven cuts down a tree to cook their food! It doesn’t have to be this way if we fuel stacked and used more LPG than charcoal.

Research also suggests that retaining existing trees is more effective in combating climate change than planting new ones.

The health implications of charcoal and firewood are huge. Children fall in open fires, women die prematurely from indoor air pollution.

The data shows that about 600,000 women in Africa die from conditions brought on indoor air pollution due to wood fuel. We need to save the lives of our women and children and indoor air pollution should be considered a health hazard of equal magnitude like cervical or breast cancer.

We urge you to sign this pledge and implement it because if you do not take action at individual level, charcoal usage and thus deforestation in Uganda will not go down.

Uganda’s population is growing at 3.2% p.a and it has been predicted that the charcoal demand will rise at double the rate of population growth, i.e. 6.34% p.a. (UBOS, 2018). Projections suggest demand for charcoal will double over the next 20 years years. This must be halted!

Charcoal benefits?

On average a kilogram of charcoal goes for 1,000ugx ($0.5). The total value of traded wood fuel in Uganda is $810m per annum. However, the true value is in negatives since accessing firewood and charcoal heavily depletes our forests.

The government of Uganda gets $146m/yr in taxes. The charcoal business provides employment, especially to the poor because it has low entry costs. It is estimated that about 870,000 people are employed on fulltime basis in this industry. 60% of these are based in the in rural areas.

Districts that top charcoal production  are: Hoima, Kayunga, Kibaale, Kiboga, Masindi, Nakasongola, Luwero and Apac (Bagabo, et al., 2008), with more recent emergence of Gulu and Arua as the supply radius widens (Kasimbazi, 2018).

If we reduce our usage by 50%, these people will remain in employment.

The energy minister Ruth Nakanbirwa revealed that when government rolls out universal LPG distribution, they will work with charcoal sellers to pivot and sell gas cylinders. As much as a few jobs will be lost, new ones will be created as well as several will be maintained.

To sign this pledge, click here. We shall follow up with you. Thank you for saving our tropical forests, saving women’s health, and helping future generations by transitioning to cleaner energy.

The writer is the Director of wePlanet Africa, a grassroots environmental movement, that puts people and science at the heart of the climate change discourse.

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