Firewood; Is Uganda burning its way to extinction?

Black carbon produced by firewood amounts to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2, making it the single most largest cause of climate warming.

By Innocent Nabaasa, Uganda

When driving along Nyarushanje road in Kisiizi, Rubabo constituency Rukungiri district, the buzzing sound of a saw machine on the roadside catches your attention.

Here, trees are bleeding. It is a painful death as the sharp tooth blade cuts through the thick trees that have sucked carbon out of mother earth.

In Rukungiri up to 95% of the population use wood biomass as the primary source of fuel.

The national total demand for wood fuels in 2019 was at  53.1 million metric tons., which accounts for 88 percent of all energy needs in Uganda. 

Uganda Bureau of sTatistics

Meanwhile, we are on a fact-finding mission to ascertain, the extent of firewood use. Nyarushanje sub-county in Rukungiri District becomes our first stop; eucalyptus tree farming is the major economic activity in this sub-county

Trees cut down for firewood

It’s evident the call to plant trees here has been loud and clear,  but the call to keep the trees alive is still a mystery. 

We visited Kisizi Hospital, the district’s biggest and privately owned hospital, this is a few metres from where the brutal ending of trees happens.

Despite being the district’s largest hospital, their main source of fuel is firewood, though slightly advanced stoves are here, these stoves conserve up to 70% of fuelwood.

Forest Cover Pattern in Uganda since 1990 1 1024x723 1

Rukungiri district environment officer Katende Laban, tells POATV that the district tries to implement the set policies and laws on climate change, but it is hard to limit firewood use for its the most accessible and affordable fuel for many. So the district has instead focused on ensuring sustainable use of firewood.

The district leadership is now encouraging communities to use LPG gas, solar, Biogas, or hydroelectricity.

According to a 2019 wood fuels research by the World Bank,  wood fuel which includes charcoal and firewood makes such a massive contribution to the county’s revenue, and substituting it with other forms of energy could have big implications on Uganda’s foreign exchange reserves.

87% of  fuelwood in Uganda is  consumed by households, while  8% is consumed by industry  and the commercial sector consumes  5%  according to UBOS 2018

Consumption of wood as fuel in Uganda. Source: UBOS 2018

The  demand for this fuel in Uganda is projected to reach between 100 and 210 Metric tonnes per year by 2040, down from 55 metric tonnes in 2019.

Whereas the Uganda National Development Plan III Climate change policy advocates for the promotion of inclusive climate-resilient and low carbon emission development at all levels, there are no clear guidelines on the control of firewood use yet black carbon produced by firewood amounts to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2, which makes black carbon the single most important cause of climate warming.

Increased wood burning emits carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants including soot, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds such as methane.

These short-lived climate pollutants are responsible for about half of global warming for they remain in the atmosphere for a couple of decades, compared to the much longer time CO2 stays there.

Also, soot from burning wood contains black carbon as a major component, this black carbon is the second largest contributor to global climate change.

When wood is burned,  CO2 that was absorbed over years while the tree was alive is released back into the atmosphere all at once.

Because trees can be replanted, wood burning has been described as renewable, for new trees will eventually reabsorb the carbon that was emitted when their predecessors were burned, but how sustainable is this? Must we create a problem to solve it?

Cooking using firewood

Even when the government has put in place greenhouse gas inventory and monitoring equipment,  there is no provision for data capture on  how much greenhouse gases firewood burning in Uganda is  contributing to global warming

It should be noted that Uganda committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in the year 2030, so how will this be possible with no data on the second leading contributor to global warming, Collins Oloya the Director of Environment in the Ministry of Water and Environment told our reporter that government is currently reviewing the forestry and tree planting act to ensure reduced use of charcoal and firewood.

He further reveals that the government of Uganda has now embarked on promoting energy-saving stoves that save up to 70% of the firewood intended to be burned, this strategy is mainly targeting women.

A study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology reveals that climate warming effects of black carbon amount to 1.6 billion tonnes of  CO2, which makes black carbon the single most important cause of climate warming.

Wood burning also releases CO2 back into the air thus contributing roughly half the amount of warming as black carbon.

Annually Uganda earns approximately 3 trillion shillings from wood fuel. Of this charcoal contributes up to 2 trillion while fuelwood contributes up to 1 trillion on an annual basis.

The 2019 wood fuels research by Wold Bank further indicates that Woodfuel demand in Uganda as of 2019 was estimated to comprise 37.6 Mt of fuelwood, 2.3 Mt of charcoal, and 2.7 Mt of agricultural and forest residues.

This woodfuel demand is expected to more than double by 2040, this means more trees will be cut, thus a reduction in carbon sinks.

The question that remains unanswered is whereas the developed nations are in the spotlight for greenhouse gas emissions especially from industries and motor vehicles, developing nations like Uganda are receiving used cars from developed countries, cutting more trees, and burning more wood for charcoal and firewood.

Also, why is it that greenhouse gases from firewood, which are the second leading contributor of global warming are not a priority now, is it because this is a problem of developing nations, or is it just a ticking time bomb.

Is firewood a silent killer, a killer of nature and human health, but killer governments have decided to live with!

This article was first published on POA TV Uganda

POA TV (Pearl of Africa Tv) is a Ugandan-based online TV Channel that focuses on Development, Tourism, Climate change, and Health.

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