Contents - Previous - Next

Chapter 1 Key trends and issues

Common property and commodity
After Nairobi
Changing perceptions
Lessons and limitations
The UNCED agenda
The scope of this report

Common property and commodity

Two in five people worldwide rely on fuelwood or charcoal as their main or sole sources of domestic energy for heating or cooking - mostly the latter - and users are expected to number 3000 million by the end of the century. Of today's 2000 million users, some 1000 million face fuel shortages as supplies of woodfuels dwindle, among them 100 million who already experience virtual 'fuelwood famine'.

Alternatives to woodfuels are often scarce in rural areas remote from national power grids or centres of distribution of fossil-based fuels such as kerosene or coal. Yet even where such conventional or 'convenience' fuels are available, many cannot afford them or simply prefer to use woodfuels for specific purposes.

An earlier report in this series, Wood For Energy, detailed the negative consequences of wood energy shortage, the importance of defending forests and forest lands from overcutting for fuel, and a number of precautions and remedies relevant to these problems.

In particular, it pointed out that intensive household use of fuelwood as a 'common property resource' goes largely unregulated and poses a high risk both to trees and to the people who depend on them for their livelihood, accelerating a cycle of forest depletion, stagnating local economies and worsening poverty (see Figure 1).

An important aim of the 1981 UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, held in Nairobi, Kenya, was to seek ways to break free of this seemingly inevitable chain of cause and effect. The resulting Nairobi Programme of Action (NPA) identified the frailest link in the chain as the subsistence user for he, or (far more often) she, was obliged to use woodfuels as a matter of expediency, not out of consumer preference or concern for environmental care.

The architects of the NPA reasoned that regulatory levers could not be expected to change patterns of energy use and production in the neediest communities most vulnerable to fuelwood shortage, unless reinforced by incentives at the point of use. They recommended moves to bring subsistence woodfuel use under control by introducing new forest management measures, intermediate technologies, production methods and material incentives.

FIGURE 1 The 'fuelwood famine' syndrome

In circumstances where forest resources were severely depleted, the NPA called for efforts to avoid fuel shortage and forest loss by:

• adopting alternative fuels such as crop residues or biogas;
• promoting more efficient stoves and kilns to save wood and charcoal;
• planting fast-growing trees in 'energy plantations' and woodlots; or by a combination of all these means.

Many of the activities stemming from the NPA also responded to more general concern over future energy supplies worldwide, at a time when energy futures were still showing the effects of the abrupt rise in oil prices brought about by the pricing policies of the OPEC cartel in the preceding decade.

In 1981, prices appeared set to rise steeply once more, this time in response to predictions (widely publicised in the Global 2000 report and elsewhere) that fossil fuel reserves could run dangerously low by the end of the century. To mitigate this risk, many countries were prepared to invest heavily in research and development into renewable, alternative energy sources and bring them into production on an industrial scale.

For developing countries, the threat of further oil price rises gave maximum cause for concern. Trapped in many cases in circumstances of slow or negative economic growth, foreign indebtedness and current trade deficit, their industrial development prospects were set at a critical disadvantage by any further rise in the cost of fossil fuel imports.


Specific actions called for in the Nairobi Programme of Action in respect of fuelwood and charcoal included:


• Assess and evaluate forest resources in order to estimate their present and future sustainable yield of fuelwood to identify deficit areas and areas in which reforestation is both urgent and practicable.


• Intensify and/or establish basic and applied research on more productive tree species;

• Support and promote work aimed at improving the efficiency of stoves and cooking utensils, develop low-cost stoves and promote their widespread use, taking into account social and cultural acceptability;

• Improve the pre-processing of fuels, including those presently wasted, such as twigs, branches and dry leaves, for use in direct combustion and other processes and improve the conversion efficiency of charcoal making;

• Develop promising fuelwood and charcoal substitutes or supplements utilizing other renewable sources of energy.


• Improve and/or establish forest management practices;

• Improve and/or establish reforestation and afforestation programmes with selected and tested species;

• Promote and support programmes, projects and activities to establish large-scale plantations, including afforestation in deficit areas and woodlots;

• Establish distribution, control and pricing policies and improve conversion and utilization technologies, such as charcoal production, gasification, kilns and ovens.

When it came to developing renewable or alternative energy sources, however, many of them possessed substantial natural advantages, not least abundant forests, fertile soils and sunlight. New wood energy applications were regarded by many of the policy makers and researchers involved in shaping national energy plans after Nairobi as an answer not only to localised fuel shortages and deforestation but also to national anxiety over trade and development prospects.

Though not necessarily incompatible, these diverging agendas introduced the risk of creating a confusion of aims, ways and means when the time came to implement the NPA recommendations. Looking back on achievements after Nairobi, it is now evident that this and other structural inconsistencies reduced the Programme's impact.

After Nairobi

Today, more than 13 years on from the summit meeting that gave rise to it, the NPA has led to constructive results around the world. But many of the predictions on which its goals were founded have not been borne out by events and some of its assumptions were based on incomplete knowledge of the true situation 'on the ground'.

The expected local and global energy shortfalls never arrived not, at least, in the crisis proportions foreseen in 1981. Fears of oil shortages and further rapid price increases were dispelled by the discovery of major new oil resources, notably in the North Sea and southeast Asia. Oil prices rose only slightly, then fell in the mid-1980s to decidedly modest levels. In many developed countries, this easing of prices was held to justify postponing development (by which the NPA had set such great store) of renewable or alternative energy options. Later in the decade, world recession also slowed growth in demand for industrial energy.

As for the predicted fuelwood crisis, this threat also receded, though only partly as a result of adoption of alternative energy strategies of the kind urged in the NPA. The main reasons for the turnaround lay elsewhere, in profound changes in the way social issues and environmental factors relating to wood energy use are generally perceived and analysed.

FIGURE 2 Energy consumption by regions in 1988

South Saharan countries consumed the least energy (120Mtoe), whereas Asian countries consumed the most (1350Mtoe). Latin America and the Caribbean consumed 700Mtoe and Emena 650Mtoe. Traditional fuels provided the energy needs of different regions in the following percentages: Africa, 60 per cent; Asia, 40 per cent; Latin America and the Caribbean, 30 per cent; Emena, 10 per cent. It is important to note that in many individual countries, the proportion taken by traditional energy is even higher than these percentages.

Source: Data on conventional energy (excluding woodfuels), World Bank 1990; traditional energy (woodfuel and biomass) data are from various sources.

FIGURE 3 The general world energy situation in 1980 and 1990

In the early eighties, during the second energy crisis, the total energy consumption of developing countries (including China) was 1740Mtoe: about 70 per cent of the world's population was responsible for about 24 per cent of world energy consumption. By the end of the decade energy consumption in developing countries grew to 29 per cent, but consumption per capita remains very low compared to that of people in developed countries.

Source: Data from CEC, 1990

Changing perceptions

This shift in attitude resulted largely from findings elicited under the NPA itself. First and foremost, monitoring returns cast doubt on the premise that large-scale deforestation arose as a primary or typical result of overcutting forests for fuelwood.

The new facts, on the contrary, indicated that overcutting was usually a secondary consequence of a more general failure to care for diminishing forest lands and resources of all kinds, to cope with rising levels of household need. Evidence also emerged that growth in consumer demand for fuelwood and charcoal in many developing countries centred more on urban than on rural areas, though the NPA's provisions focused mainly on the latter.

Supply inventories showed that much of the fuelwood and charcoal in current use was obtained not from forests but from scattered tree populations on farms, at waysides and in wastelands. These stocks did not feature in the forestry data used to predict woodfuel supply and demand prior to the consultations that led to the NPA.

In the wake of the general reappraisal that followed upon these insights, the use of fuelwood and charcoal in domestic situations, industry or commerce began to be spoken of once more in a positive language of development opportunity and challenge rather than in terms of apprehension or implied apology for the subsistence user.

Forestry planners and researchers have long reasoned that if the economic potential of forest products is not fully realised in sustainable ways, forests are liable to be ousted by more lucrative or expedient land uses. Most specialists now agree that wood energy production need be no exception to the range of sustainable forestry outputs and that, moreover, communities enjoying open access to forests and the right to use and manage them, normally adopt careful and protective attitudes towards woodfuel resources.

Perceptions have changed on other fronts, too. New and extended industrial and technological applications for wood energy have attracted growing investment interest in many industrialised and rapidly industrialising countries. In a number of developed countries, where access to electricity and other 'conventional' power sources is taken for granted, wood has gained approval as an alternative domestic heat-source or speciality fuel, offering distinctive environmental and energy-saving advantages.

On all sides, it is now apparent that wood and wood-based fuels merit open-minded consideration as technically mature, environmentally sound, economically viable and culturally acceptable options for modern energy development around the world. The most important lesson that remains to be learned from the NPA experience is the importance of developing these options in a coordinated way, in keeping with the ecological and socioeconomic realities that prevail from place to place.

Lessons and limitations

The diverse activities called for under the NPA varied in their appeal to the state forestry departments, non-governmental community development organizations and industrial development agencies that were chiefly called on to implement them. These efforts formed part of the same programme of action, employed materials from the same source, the forest, and transformed them in the interests of the same intended beneficiary, the citizen. Yet the connection between them was far from obvious.


Wood energy and sustainable forestry

Social (or community) forestry, environmentally sound forest management and multiple-use economic forestry are widely favoured practices and methodologies that are essentially compatible and therefore appear set to evolve into a new sustainable forestry order that amalgamates all three. This shift could affect future patterns of wood energy production and use worldwide. By adding value to the standing forest, sustainable production and use of woodfuels can serve all three interests, while the same triangle of checks and balances should, in turn, keep wood energy production and harvesting within sustainable limits.

Forestry departments concentrated on fuelwood plantations, improved tree varieties and little else. Energy researchers and industrial engineers fixed their sights on new technologies for gasification or pyrolysis, paying little heed to mechanisms of supply or end-use outside the mill or factory gate. NGOs focused their efforts mainly on small-scale community woodlots and improved cooking stoves.

It is not surprising that the overall impact of these activities on the wood energy situation has lacked coherence. Many individual successes have been recorded but there is little evidence of improvements of general note. How can this record be improved on?

An accumulation of FAO research suggests that effective wood energy management requires a coordinated 'systems approach' in which all actions relevant to wood energy production and use support and reinforce one another. Another key point is that there is no standard blueprint for these systems: planning moves should be geared to realities specific to the area in focus.

Among these factors are constraints and limitations always liable to be ranged against wood energy development, including limits on the capacity of the primary resource, the forest, to support intensified energy-related use. In many areas of semi-arid or mountainous regions such use must be ruled out entirely or strictly limited in view of environmental conditions. There are, on the other hand, many more situations where scarcity of forests and trees is not a limiting factor and the bioenergy resource is to a certain extent under-utilized.

Foremost among other common constraints, particularly in developing countries, are lack of the technical capacity, institutional facilities, regulatory mechanisms and educational inputs needed to make the best use of wood energy resources. Lack of political or financial support for wood energy development is another obstacle. It reflects a perception commonly held among policy makers, investors and developers that wood energy is a low-grade or archaic power source by comparison with 'conventional' fuels. This outlook is generally more prevalent in industrialised than in developing countries, but is on the retreat as new factors relating to environment enter the picture.

FIGURE 4 A systems approach to wood energy development

A systems approach to wood energy production and use means giving rein to 'feedback loops' linking forests, trees and people in a mutually supportive and interactive chain of benefits. Development policies and strategies should be aimed at enabling benefits and feedback to flow freely in both directions, to sustainable effect and in measured relation to topical circumstances.

The UNCED agenda

Attitudes began to shift in the mid-1980s with expanding global awareness of the environmental drawbacks of prevailing patterns of energy production, distribution and use around the world.

Disproportionate consumption of fossil-based fuels in the global 'North', coupled with forest loss in the 'South', were identified as major contributory causes of global warming - excess accumulation of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' in the atmosphere, leading to raised air temperatures. Climatologists have warned that this 'greenhouse effect' will set the world at risk of potentially catastrophic climate change in the early 21st century.

Besides introducing a new global imperative for 'greening' energy production and use, the UNCED rationale provides a much-needed framework for integrating localised actions relevant to wood energy production and consumption in different sectors, including forestry, local government, commerce and community development programmes managed by voluntary organizations or self-help groups. It also adds point to efforts to upgrade the quality of life and the surroundings of people living under unstable environmental conditions, not least refugee groups and the urban poor.


At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a Framework Convention on Climate Change was approved by a majority of UN Member States, pledging worldwide stabilization (ideally by the year 2005) of greenhouse gas emissions at levels no higher than those then current. A number of other agreements and guidelines were adopted, including an instrument for the conservation of biodiversity, a general Rio Declaration spelling out links between environment and development, an advisory code of Forestry Principles and an overall summary of sustainable development targets for the 21st Century, Agenda 21.

In setting emission quotas, the Framework Convention on Climate Change allowed countries with less industry but abundant forest vegetation additional credit for the function their forests serve as greenhouse gas 'sinks' or carbon fixation assets. All countries undertook to reduce their use of fossil fuels under self-imposed emission controls assessed in proportion to ongoing production. Among measures contemplated after Rio was greater use of biomass fuels derived from plants. Carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of such fuels are, in effect, cancelled out at least partly by the carbon fixation function of any energy crop during growth and the further storage or sequestration of carbon as wood.

Since, over time, trees perform these parallel functions in greater measure than field crops, the new imperative towards climate regulation promises to set wood energy production and use to the fore of future energy development scenarios, and strengthens a general case for developing forests sustainably for many uses. Putting land to 'energy farming' use under tree cover can deliver other environmental benefits, such as soil, water and habitat conservation and -in some situations reclamation of wastelands. Moreover, using wood as a fuel usually creates less chemical air pollution than burning, coal. diesel or gasoline.

The scope of this report

This report highlights new opportunities for wood energy use in rural and urban neighbourhoods in developing countries and in industry, commerce and public utility management, without harming the regenerative capacity of trees and forests or reducing their significance as safeguards over soil nutrients, water resources and biodiversity. It places an equal emphasis on situations where forest depletion and fuelwood shortage are not evident constraints, and on those where openings exist to reverse forest loss by enhancing the forest's value as a renewable energy resource.

It offers examples of wood energy development in rural and urban, domestic and industrial, developed and less developed contexts. It surveys the desiderata wood energy can help fulfil and catalogues mature and emerging wood energy technologies. Finally, it sketches the role FAO foresees for wood energy in sustainable development.

Wood energy use and production are no panacea for the world's ills. They are often associated with environmental, economic and human problems. Yet, managed sustainably, they can also offer valuable solutions, benefits and safeguards. That promise is the main topic that this report seeks to explore and affirm.

'Agriculture objectives [include efforts] to, not later than the year 2000... initiate and encourage a process of environmentally sound energy transition in rural communities, from unsustainable energy sources, to structured and diversified energy sources by making available new and renewable sources of energy.'

Agenda 21, Chapter 14

'To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.'

Rio Declaration, Principle 8

Contents - Previous - Next