Study yields surprising insights into the effects of wood fuel burning

Study yields surprising insights into the effects of wood fuel burning

The harvesting of wood to meet the heating and cooking demands for billions of people worldwide has less of an impact on global forest loss and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than previously believed, according to a new Yale-led study.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, a team of researchers, including Prof. Robert Bailis of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), concludes that only about 27 to 34 percent of wood fuel harvested worldwide would be considered "unsustainable." According to the assessment, "sustainability" is based on whether or not annual harvesting exceeds incremental re-growth.

The other authors are Rudi Drigo, an independent specialist with international experience; and Adrian Ghilardi and Omar Masera of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

According to the authors, the findings point to the need for more nuanced, local-specific policies that address forest loss, climate change, and public health. They also suggest that existing carbon offset methodologies used to reduce carbon emissions likely overstate the CO2 emission reductions that can be achieved through the promotion of more efficient cookstove technologies.

The study identifies a set of "hotspots" where the majority of wood extraction exceeds sustainable yields. These hotspot regions—located mainly in South Asia and East Africa—support about 275 million people who are reliant on wood fuel.

However, in other regions, the authors say, much of the wood used for this traditional heating and cooking is actually the byproduct of driven by other factors, such as demand for agricultural land, which would have occurred anyway.

Study yields surprising insights into the effects of wood fuel burning
The study identified a set of “hotspot” regions in South Asia and Eastern Africa where the majority of wood extraction exceeds sustainable yields.

"If forests and woodlands would have been cut down anyway, then the projects designed to reduce wood fuel demand are not actually going to reduce deforestation," said Bailis, an associate professor at F&ES and lead author of the study. "Sure, you're reducing wood use, but the underlying pressures driving deforestation are still out there."

The results stand in contrast to a long-held assumption that the harvesting of wood fuels—which accounts for more than half of the wood harvested worldwide—is a major driver of deforestation and .

Using a model originally developed by Drigo and Masera, and already applied in more than 20 countries, the researchers produce a spatially explicit snapshot of wood fuel supply and demand in 90 countries across the world's tropical regions, where burning wood is a critical source of energy for cooking and heating.

"One of the problems with traditional bio-energy is that the situation is very locally specific, so you can't come up with a general response for all places," said Masera. "One of the real strengths of this paper is that it demonstrates a methodology that allows you to identify priority regions for intervention"

In addition to the global analysis, the researchers are using the same model to evaluate the sustainability of resources in three case studies: Honduras, Kenya, and the Indian state of Karnataka.

"Even within a given country the situation varies a great deal," said Drigo. "Some areas are over-exploited while others are under-exploited or totally untouched. A better understanding of the relationship between supply and demand requires this type of spatial approach to clarify what the impacts of different policies will be."

Emissions from fuels account for about 1.9 to 2.3 percent of global emissions, the study says. The deployment of 100 million improved cookstoves could reduce this by 11 to 17 percent, said Bailis, who also studies the factors that influence the adoption of cleaner cookstoves in developing nations.

These reductions would be worth more than $1 billion per year in avoided greenhouse gas if black carbon were integrated into carbon markets, he said.

"We need to be able to understand where these different components of non-renewability are coming from in order to get a better sense of the positive impacts of putting stoves into peoples' homes or promoting transitions to cooking with gas or electricity," he said.

Explore further

Using more wood for construction can slash global reliance on fossil fuels

More information: Bailis, Robert; Drigo, Rudi; Ghilardi, Adrian; and Masera, Omar. 2015. The carbon footprint of traditional woodfuels. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2491 ,
Journal information: Nature Climate Change

Provided by Yale University
Citation: Study yields surprising insights into the effects of wood fuel burning (2015, January 22) retrieved 16 September 2019 from
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Jan 22, 2015
This study is a bit like the one where psychologists examined one night stands, and were completely shocked to discover that men and women had different criteria for evaluating whether they will have one or not.

The study completely failed to shock anyone outside the field of psychology.

So, yeah, combustion of trees, or more importantly wood waste, is a very short cycle compared to burning fossil fuels. Therefore the net change is going to be zero over ~30 years, and approaching zero much sooner.

If they'd of just asked me, look at how much research money they'd saved.

Jan 22, 2015
If you stop and think about it a bit the burning of wood is causing more co2 in the atmosphere.

Most of those countries it shows in that map have populations that are growing fast. More people means more wood fires which equates to more co2. With the high permanent loss of forests that is also going on in many of those areas, the co2 is not going to be recycled as fast as it was so it will have more time to affect the global temperatures.

Jan 22, 2015
Sigh burning wood actually drives re-forestation. You plant more trees so that you can cut them down in the future to sell them again . . .

Jan 22, 2015
Cutting and replanting trees wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't one of the causes of falling biodiversity. Old trees host species that regrowth does not.

Jan 22, 2015
better stoves remove health problems from fumes, and help owners to think more about what they are doing. Top Lit Updraft wood stoves also can be stopped at a point where the charcoal remaining can be used as a soil component that will keep carbon sequestered in the soil for hundreds of years. This is longer than the lifespan of dead wood on the surface of the ground, by far. Biochar, as it is called, could begin the move toward keeping carbon in the soil where it is useful to the biology of the earth, instead of it being in the atmosphere, where it is problematic. Much research is being done on biochar, and it all started with terra-preta from the Amazon basin. Look it up. Good things will come from more awareness surrounding our combustion! We form our habits, then they form us.

Jan 22, 2015
As with all forms of energy consumption, efficacy in the use of the resource is the key to lessening negative impacts. A mix of sustainable energy sources is needed to suit differing demands, locales and availability.
Burning wood as efficiently and as cleanly as possible, while maintaining as much biodiversity as possible, is one piece of the puzzle of weaning the planet off of fossil fuel consumption.

Jan 22, 2015
that's right I have been trying to tell people this for the longest time, for an example almond firewood is one of the best and on top of that its totally carbon neutral, its carbon neutral because when a tree in the orchard no longer produces what it should then those trees are marked for removal seasonally, the tree is burned as an energy source but the tree that was removed is replaced with another tree, the tree that was burned is only releasing the carbon it took in when it was alive. but the tree that is replanted in its place takes out an equal amount of carbon during its life time so that the total carbon intake equals the total carbon out put. but we get food and oxygen when it is alive and energy to heat and cook on afterwards, and on top of that it reduces our dependence on fossil fuel which there is no current process for removing the carbon after its burned,

Jan 22, 2015
Nothing new here although is may remind some folks of the difference between fosil carbon and carbon in circulation. a tree, or any plant pulls carbon out of the ait and uses it ti build it's tissues, when the tree dies it's carbon goes back to the air by rotting or burning, same difference, round and round, no carbon add or subtracted from the amount in circulation when you dig up coal, or pump up natural gas or petroleum and burn you are taking carbon that has been locked deep inside the earth for hundreds of millions of years and putting it into the air. that's why they are called fossil fuels, they have been locked away for many geologic ages.

Jan 22, 2015
this study is junk science, take a look at the picture, you notice very few trees in the back ground, All those trees were removed for farming and firewood use. To claim that is not effecting CO2 is just junk science.

Jan 22, 2015
wow , one of the few global warming financed studies that doesn't push an agenda of control of the developing world by the first world. i don't think these researchers got the memo!

if the truth doesn't fit the narrative, best to move on and cherry pick those that do!

Jan 23, 2015
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum

Jan 25, 2015
There's a lot of confusion about biofuels.

The EU for example classifies peat as a fossil fuel, even though in many places it grows fasters than it is used. As a result, countries have been applying carbon taxes on peat, which has resulted in more CO2 emissions because the now-expensive peat is substituted with coal.

Jan 25, 2015
Eikka, when you see something like that, make no mistake: It done with intent, not by accident.

Jan 25, 2015
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum

Took yer advice...

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