The guest editorial for this issue has been written by Mr Paul Hassing of the Netherlands Development Cooperation. We would like to thank Mr Hassing for accepting our invitation.

Biomass: fuel of the poor with a future
The perception of biomass as an energy source has silently been undergoing a fundamental change: from problem to opportunity.

As a modern, sustainable and climate-neutral fuel for producing heat or generating electrical power it is now seen as an opportunity by many industries and governments. Biomass is widely being introduced by public and private sectors in electric power and/or heat generation, because it is often competitive in price with fossil fuels and because it saves foreign exchange. The source may be wood grown in dedicated plantations, wood residues/wastes from other industrial activities, or non-wood residues from agro-industries such as bagasse. Modern gasification and fermentation technologies use biomass directly or indirectly (cow dung, sludge, etc.) to produce gases to generate electricity or heat. These so-called modern biomass uses are rapidly taking off and are finding their markets.

However, traditional biomass use is still seen by many people as a dirty, unhealthy, environmentally degrading domestic fuel used by poor people (and primarily women). This is a false perception. As a common domestic cooking fuel there is considerable scope for improvement. The main issue is that of equity and sustainability. It is still believed that biomass use for cooking leads to deforestation. This may be true in some sub-Saharan African countries although it appears that the resiliency of the forestry system is much greater than predicted. It, however, does not apply to the rest of Africa and to most parts of Asia. And, where forest degradation is occurring as a result of fuelwood gathering, this is often a residual problem after the combined pressures of logging and forest clearing for agriculture have narrowed the resource base. Biomass resource use for cooking, at least in the rural context, is generally not a problem as non-forest resources are often used, or forest resources are used in a sustainable way. It seems that the main problem is the way urban centres are supplied with wood and charcoal. It is in the fuelwood catchment zones around the urban centres where mining of wood for commercial sale and for charcoal production takes place and where serious sustainability problems arise.

But this problem also offers an opportunity. An opportunity for improved forest management, employment and income generation for the rural populations. It is a little known fact that the turnover in the informally organized fuelwood sector is larger than that of the conventional fossil fuel energy sector in most sub-Saharan African countries. The benefits flow mainly to the traders, wholesalers and urban consumers with a marginal benefit to the rural population. Prices paid for the resource are so low that they cannot cover replacement costs. This situation is not sustainable. A system should be developed which captures and ploughs back some of the profit into the management of the forest to ensure that the rate of offtake does not exceed the rate of natural regeneration. The success of such a system will depend on the involvement of the local population who have an interest in ensuring production in the long term. At present, rural populations have poor authority over forests and watch urban-based dealers (with or without permits) strip the resource for short-term gain. It is in this area of equity and sustainability that an organization such as FAO can and should make a difference. At the same time, FAO would also contribute to the development of a truly carbon-neutral energy resource. The climate would benefit from it.

The issue of efficiency and health has to be looked into as well. Modern technologies and improved cooking devices will make biomass consumption cheaper for households and reduce dramatically the negative impacts on the health of women and children. Alternative systems such as biogas and solar cooking devices can substitute for wood in the rural areas. In urban areas substitution by other fuels such as kerosene and gas should also be taken into account.

Over the last decennium two dedicated multilateral regional programmes have addressed the biomass issues: in Asia, FAO’s Regional Wood Energy Development Programme (RWEDP); and, in Africa, the World Bank’s Regional Programme for the Traditional Energy Sector (RPTES). Both programmes aim to put biomass energy in the policy agenda of the countries concerned and support institutional capacity. RWEDP, which began 16 years ago, shifted from a supply to a combined supply/demand side orientation and has been developing regional biomass energy databases, producing and disseminating information on the latest biomass technology developments, addressing sustainability of supply and improved biomass use. RPTES, which started in 1993, is mainly addressing traditional use of biomass as cooking energy at both ends of the energy equation, working with innovative community forest management methods, a variety of demand side technologies. RPTES aims to present a national programme for investments based on national ownership with national stakeholders. Each programme reflects the stage of development of the use of biomass in its own region and tries to formulate locally based opportunities.

The reality is that biomass will continue to be dominant in the daily life of billions of people for generations to come. The management of the resource will have a fundamental impact on their way of living. The rationalization of biomass energy use is in essence a rural opportunity for rural people. It is in this area where FAO has a unique position, which could be better capitalized. In the past FAO has supported the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), in which fuelwood was identified as one of the five priority components. The TFAP, in fact, offered an excellent opportunity for a successful cooperation between FAO and multilateral financial institutions, but failed to put biomass on the operational agenda and to trigger new investments.

But there are still huge opportunities for FAO, as the leading multilateral organization in the area of biomass. The opportunity of biomass energy cannot be taken up by one international organization alone. Nor can the solution. Therefore, stronger cooperation with other international and national players and FAO’s stronger presence in this field are required.

The urgency of the biomass energy source in relation to poverty reduction and climate change requires a dedicated international effort. Multilaterals have to join forces and resources.

Paul Hassing

Netherlands Development Cooperation