Charcoal, a low-cost fuel for many households, is a threat to Africa’s forests. Across the continent, consumption could double or even triple by 2050.
Responsible for 90% of deforestation in Africa, wood fuels (charcoal, firewood, etc.) are more popular than ever: according to FAO, Africa may already account for 60% of charcoal and 35% of wood fuels consumed globally.
Charcoal is used by 77% and 43% of rural and urban households, respectively, and is fuelling the African economy, despite it only rarely being legal. Less expensive than electricity (which is still in short supply in Africa), charcoal - made from burning living trees - is more practical than using dead wood which is more difficult to keep alight.
According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) projections, demand in Africa may double or even triple by 2050. This level cannot be sustained by African forests, which are already shrinking rapidly: 35% of Africa comprises wooded areas, but around 75 million ha were lost between 1990 and 2010, with an accelerated rate in the past decade (loss of 0.5% of forested area per year). This loss of a valuable resource threatens the environment in many ways: soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and emission of greenhouse gases resulting in global warming, with Africa being one of the first regions to suffer. However, ever-increasing use of charcoal will also have a strong impact on health: burning the fuel, which often occurs within the home, decreases the air quality inside the building. According to the World Health Organization, this indoor pollution is one of the leading causes of death across the world: 4.3 million deaths per year - of which 600,000 are in Africa - are primarily due to cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
In addition to the environmental and health impacts, charcoal can also cause severe political issues. In 2014, in a report titled The Environmental Crime Crisis, UNEP estimated that charcoal trafficking is funding criminal and terrorist group activities, in particular in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. This African charcoal does not stay in the domestic market. In September 2015, The Forest Trust NGO revealed that around 40% of the charcoal sold in France came from Nigeria – a country with one of the highest deforestation rates – despite the fact that it is very rarely labelled as such. Although the EU requires wood imports to be from legal sources, charcoal is not included in the European Union Timber Regulations, which have been in force since March 2013.