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Harnessing the energy of forests responsibly in the years to come

Read time: 5 mins

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria / Research Matters

The 21st of March, also celebrated as the International Day of Forests, is a day to raise awareness to preserve and celebrate trees of all kinds – those that are part of a dense forest, or those lining the avenues of our cities. Ecologists say that forests are home to about 80% of animals, plants and insects that live on land, and support about 1.6 billion people (including the 2000 indigenous tribes) who depend on forests for their livelihood.

Thanks to the rapid pace of urbanization, today we live on a planet whose forests are shrinking by the minute. Statistics show that we have lost 129 million hectares of forests between 1990 and 2005, equivalent to the size of South Africa! A report by the United Nations says global deforestation continues unabated at an alarming rate of 13 million hectares annually, accounting for 12 - 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Considering that forests greatly influence natural processes like rainfall patterns and air circulation, and prevent soil erosion in addition to providing livelihoods to millions, why are we cutting them down? The demands on forests are manifold, from energy to resource collection. With surging population levels, there is an ever-increasing pressure to make more land available for housing, industrialization and agriculture. Now, the modern world has added a new dimension to this problem - energy deficit.

The World Energy Council estimates that our per capita energy demand will only increase in the future. So where do we turn to satisfy this demand? Forests, of course. Forests today hold as much energy as 10 times of the world’s current energy consumption, in the form of fossil fuel and wood fuel. Hence, they become a great renewable resource to meet this ever-increasing global energy demand. Currently, about 40% of our renewable energy is harnessed from forest resources - more than hydroelectric, wind or solar power sources combined.
But, are we using this resource sensibly? What are the implications of the reckless abuse of these resources and how long can this go on? Recognising the need for answers to these questions, the United Nations has declared the theme of this year’s International Day of Forests as ‘Forests and Energy’. It is an attempt to highlight the relationship forests has on our energy demands, and how we are harnessing the same.

Forests and Energy

We have been using energy from the forests since the invention of fire, to cook and heat. With industrialization, the last century has seen a surge in the use of fossil fuels. Even today, about 50% of the wood from forests is used for cooking, heating, and electricity generation – providing nutritious meals, boiled water and warmth to around 2.4 billion people around the world. Forests also spur the economic development of almost 900 million people, mostly in developing countries, who collect firewood on a part - or full - time basis.

Our actions of the past are not without repercussions. The use of fossil fuels has caused an unprecedented rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which in turn has paved the way for global warming and climate change. Burning wood also contributes to the rising emissions since improper combustion can release carbon monoxide, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. The effect when close to a third of the population globally burns firewood daily for cooking and heating can only be imagined.

Technology to the rescue

It is a fact that our lives increasingly depend on forests for energy needs. Can modernizing the wood energy sector help address some of the challenges? If yes, it can help grow more forests and revitalize rural economies by improving the revenue out of wood fuel and increasing job opportunities.

Our hope lies with technology that can be a powerful tool in sustainably deriving energy from forests. With innovations that make it possible to use wood as a clean and efficient source of fuel, we could be looking at a future in which renewable energy is made more accessible to people who need it the most. For example, the smokeless earthen community stoves or chulhas designed by Mr. V. Jayaprakash from Kozhikode, Kerala is one. The first of their kind, these stoves are energy efficient, need much less wood than traditional stoves and completely burn the wood, resulting in no harmful emissions. This invention is so novel that 7500 such stoves have been manufactured so far, and as many as a hundred schools in two districts in Kerala use them to cook mid-day meals for children.

Another example of such modernization can be seen in West Bengal, where Top Lit Updraft Gasifier (TLUD) is being installed in villages in and around Sundarbans. Servals Automation Pvt. Ltd., an organization based out of Chennai, is responsible for bringing this energy efficient stove into over 9000 families since 2009. The TLUD can take any type of biomass as fuel – firewood, leaves, barks, etc. It uses about 4 kg of wood to cook a day’s meal, in comparison to the 15 kg of wood that a normal mud stove would use, and it does so without emitting smoke. It also produces charcoal, which can be stored by families and sold, thus acting as an alternative source of income.

Perhaps those of us living in urban environments are not dependent on wood for fuel the same way. But recent research shows that we can bring down temperatures in cities from 2 – 8 degrees by simply planting trees in strategic places. Tropical nations like India see summer temperatures skyrocket ever more frighteningly every year. If we could implement this, then we would not only be able to save on electricity consumption to cool our homes, but also encourage urban wildlife to thrive.

Innovations like these, coupled with a push towards greater investment in technology, can go a long way in sustainably managing forests and helping maintain forests’ role as a major source of renewable energy. Creating awareness about the importance of forests and their resources among communities that heavily depend on forests can play a role in conserving this precious source of energy.

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”, said Chris Maser, the famous ecologist. With climate change looming large and threatening to wipe out the existence of life, these words are truer than ever. Let’s strive to reap the wealth in wood with an informed strategy and also help forests thrive – because our very survival depends on them.