Bamboo charcoal is a clean, sustainable and reliable source of energy that helps countries reduce the use of wood and protect fragile forests, while still meeting the energy needs of their growing populations. It should be an integral part of national climate change strategies and a key contributor to the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically SDG 7.
Bamboo’s properties make it highly attractive for producing charcoal compared to wood. Bamboo grows at up to one metre per day and can be harvested for use in only 3-6 years. In comparison, many tree species take much longer to become established. With a calorific value similar to that of wood and almost half that of petroleum by weight, bamboo charcoal also produces fewer pollutants than either.
Millions of the 1.7 billion people worldwide who use biomass for their primary energy resource live near bamboo forests. Producing charcoal from bamboo forests or plantations takes pressure off fragile forest resources used for fuel, heating and firewood.
This has the dual benefit of reducing deforestation and the release of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. A large-scale switch to bamboo – in both local practice and government policies – will have a significant positive impact on preserving the world’s forest ecosystems.
Switching to bamboo charcoal not only brings significant environmental benefits, but also stimulates local jobs and new income streams. Charcoal production is a relatively simple process that involves little capital investment and rural communities stand to gain from the growing worldwide trade in bamboo charcoal – estimated at 122 million USD in 2013. The rise of activated charcoal – a product used in many industrial processes and applications – promises even more income.
In the post-2015 development agenda, these benefits mean bamboo could emerge to become a key input to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically SDG 7, which aims to provide affordable, sustainable, and reliable modern energy services for all.
But a shift away from wood harvesting to use bamboo to meet more people’s local energy needs can only happen if value chains, markets and technologies to produce a steady bamboo charcoal supply are in place.
How to make this transition is informed by a project led by INBAR, with financial support from the European Union – ‘Bamboo as Sustainable Biomass Energy.’ The initiative set out in 2009 in Ethiopia and Ghana to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as alternatives to traditional fuelwood from trees. Training and workshops in local communities, some using demonstration kilns, raised awareness of bamboo as an energy alternative.
At the national level in both countries INBAR is introducing appropriate bamboo species, guiding the establishment of small enterprises and supporting government and civil society efforts to develop bamboo charcoal value chains.
By 2013, over 600 hectares of new bamboo had been planted in Ethiopia and Ghana, and 10,000 hectares of existing stands had been placed under sustainable management.
The project also trained 4000 individuals in bamboo cultivation, carbonisation, and briquette production and use, resulting in the production of 550 tonnes of bamboo charcoal and allowing more than 10,000 households to start using bamboo for fuel. Residents of villages near the pilot communities in Ethiopia have adopted the technology, indicating that self-perpetuating value chains for bamboo charcoal are starting to take hold.
The benefits of bamboo charcoal production are being noticed elsewhere. In Jamaica, producers have begun exporting modest amounts to the United States, and a recently established training centre will help expand expertise and knowledge further, contributing to the island’s emerging green economy.
Future development would do well to follow the lead of Peckham, a small rural community in the central highlands of Jamaica where charcoal production is reversing high levels of unemployment and out-migration. The community expects to increase production from today’s 2.5 tonnes per week over the coming year to penetrate lucrative markets in Germany, Canada, and the US.
Charcoal sector development in Jamaica is being strengthened through a partnership with China – the world’s leading producer of bamboo charcoal. With INBAR’s help, China has provided Jamaican partners with technical expertise, helped identify and develop value chains, shared national standards, and hosted a visit by Jamaican policy makers and entrepreneurs to see China’s strong and growing the bamboo charcoal sector in action.
These advances in Jamaica, and elsewhere, demonstrate that bamboo is emerging as a strategic option to meet growing energy needs in many parts of the Global South. Bamboo charcoal not only makes economic sense, but offers unique climate-smart properties and a sustainable alternative to using wood or fossil fuels.