Over half of all wood harvested worldwide is used as fuel, supplying ~9% of global primary energy. By depleting stocks of woody biomass, unsustainable harvesting can contribute to forest degradation, deforestation and climate change. However, past efforts to quantify woodfuel sustainability failed to provide credible results.

The authors present a spatially explicit assessment of pan-tropical woodfuel supply and demand, calculate the degree to which woodfuel demand exceeds regrowth, and estimate woodfuel-related greenhouse-gas emissions for the year 2009. They estimate 27–34% of woodfuel harvested was unsustainable, with large geographic variations. The estimates are lower than estimates from carbon offset projects, which are probably overstating the climate benefits of improved stoves.

Approximately 275 million people live in woodfuel depletion ‘hotspots’ – concentrated in South Asia and East Africa – where most demand is unsustainable. Emissions from woodfuels are 1.0–1.2 Gt CO2e yr−1 (1.9–2.3% of global emissions). Successful deployment and utilization of 100 million improved stoves could reduce this by 11–17%. At US$11 per tCO2e, these reductions would be worth over US$1 billion yr−1 in avoided greenhouse-gas emissions if black carbon were integrated into carbon markets. By identifying potential areas of woodfuel-driven degradation or deforestation, we inform the ongoing discussion about REDD-based approaches to climate change mitigation.

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