Charcoal may be the ugly duckling of household heating and cooking fuels. Long considered destructive to forests and damaging to the atmosphere, it could turn into a lifesaver, says physicist and energy specialist Daniel Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley. “Burning charcoal in a stove is dramatically better than wood burning.”
Kammen and his colleagues have found that wood-burning stoves in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to nearly 10 million premature deaths over the next 25 years. Particulate pollutants in woodsmoke significantly increase the risk of pneumonia in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adult women.
Switching to charcoal could save 2.8 million of those lives. Lighter and denser than wood, charcoal burns longer and produces fewer toxic emissions, reducing indoor air pollution by up to 90 percent. Charcoal isn’t widely used in most African homes because governments view it as backward and destructive. “Right now, almost every African country uses charcoal, but few countries have a charcoal trade that is even quasi legal,” Kammen says.
Cleaner-burning fossil fuels like kerosene would reduce deaths and greenhouse-gas emissions, but they cost too much for most Africans. The best alternative, Kammen says, is to legalize and regulate the charcoal trade, introduce cleaner-burning charcoal stoves, and teach charcoal producers sustainable and efficient manufacturing techniques that reduce greenhouse emissions. “Then charcoal ends up being kind of a winner,” he says, “as opposed to the loser we all thought it was.”
Premature deaths by 2030: 9.8 million
Greenhouse-gas emmissions by 2050: 6.7 billion tons
Charcoal (sustainable production)
Premature deaths: 7.0 million
Greenhouse-gas emmissions: 7.1 billion-9.2 billion tons
Premature deaths: 6.1 million
Greenhouse-gas emmissions: 6.0 billion-6.7 billion tons