Biomass: miracle or monstrosity?

Evidence of the limited short lifetime expectancy for fossil fuel exploitation makes biomass projects attractive again but faced many socio-ecological and cultural challenges. How should biomass production and the related market activities be organized to minimize environmental harmful impacts and maximize social welfare as well as taking into account cultural aspects?

Limited economic goods stress the demands which will increased prices. Simple economic adage surely, yet million of people suffer from this rule. Caused by fossil fuel scarcity in tandem with high prices, the world is facing fossil fuel crises. Some positivist attitudes used to claim that a prevalence of new technologies would counterbalance this insufficiency. Yet others alarmed that these technologies are not affordable for more than 50% of countries and would be as much energy demanding. A greater diversification of the energy supply is one of the solutions, therefore putting forward biomass projects seem to be the most “reasonable” economic choice since biomass is any plant material, vegetation, or agricultural waste used as a fuel or energy source.

The paper intends to demonstrate the positive outcome generated with biomass projects but also argues that negative impacts are compelling reasons for this issue to be taken more seriously especially in the context of Africa. In this regards, key environmental and economic traditional thinking will be reviewed briefly as a comprehensive approach to resource management.

Biomass is the oldest and the most used source of energy in Africa and a major economic sector with strong opportunities for development. This energy source is mostly providing by wood including charcoal, mainly used for heating/cooking which is particularly prevalent in Africa as being the largest consumers of biomass with more than 75% of energy consumption compared with 3% in the OCDE. The current demand of energy could be satisfied by this mean, but ironically Africa has been heavily dependent on imported oil/ energies sources for its energy needs. As a result, in recent years projects started to take measures to decrease the country’s dependence on oil by developing indigenous energy resources.

However, too little attention has been paid in the past to the negative effects imply with biomass energy. As mentioned above, wood is the most common biomass energy source but also involves environmentally detrimental practices. Trees and derived charcoal used or sold for fuel has become a profitable commodity resulting in an ever extending tree logging. The removal of trees without sufficient reforestation has resulted in damage to habitat, biodiversity loss and alarming rate of deforestation. Important of note is that deforestation is now the most pressing environmental issues in Africa since for example the Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the world’s second largest rain forest, in West Africa and one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Problems are expected to worsen with the likely effects of Climate Change which constitute an imperative threat to environmental security in the near term. According to the United Nation, millennium-project, environmental security is the relative safety from environmental dangers caused by natural or human processes due to ignorance, accident, mismanagement or design and originating within or across national borders.

Apart from a strictly environmental perspective, negative effects are also found in terms of health and safety. The smoke generated in the use of fuel wood for cooking is a carcinogen and causes respiratory problem. According to the World Health Organisation, solid fuels on open fires or stoves without chimneys leads to indoor air pollution and exposure is particularly high among women and children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. Every year, indoor air pollution is responsible for the death of 1.6 million people which represents one death every 20 seconds.

In this regard, calculation of  a “reasonable” economic choice should systematically integrate environmental and gender consideration.

In order to restore to the economy its ecological and social foundations, the paper suggests escaping from the economic mainstream and pays attention to other school of thought. In the case of biomass projects Environmental Economics thinking are limited because conventionally Environmental Economics is dedicated to the analysis of externalities which are the side-effects or consequences of industrial or commercial activities. Since socio-ecological considerations are extremely important the paper brings about Ecological Economics principles. Simply put, instead of analysing the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem, Ecological Economics intends to comprehend the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. History of Ecological Economics least to the 1960’s in the work of Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly (Boulding 1966, Daly 1968) and the first formal efforts to bring ecologists and economists together occurred in the 1980’s when Ann-Mari Jansson organized a symposium in Sweden “Integrating Ecology and Economics”. One of the key European conceptual founders is Rene Passet (1979), who works towards a reconciliation of economic logic with the logic of the life sciences in its reference book: “L’Economique et le Vivant”.

However none of these disciplines clearly integrate cultural aspects, yet embedded in any economic activity. The following example will demonstrate that when putting it into practice the lack of cultural considerations presents a real challenge. Humanitarian organizations are promoting solar oven to help slow deforestation and desertification, caused by using wood as fuel for cooking. A solar oven or solar cooker is a device which uses sunlight as its energy source and accordingly do not use fuel and do not cost anything. These devices have also been used in the Darfur refugee camps to reduce the Darfuri women’s need to leave the relative safety of the camp to gather firewood, which exposed them to a high risk of being kidnapped or murdered. However, for other countries solar oven did not work that well because cultural and gender barriers have been stronger than these benefits. Reason that have caused other solar cooking projects to fail is that most people in the developing world work while the sun is out and eat their main meal of the day after sundown. Food cooked in most solar cooking devices must be consumed immediately or it will become cold. Another reason solar cooking has not been widely accepted is that most solar cookers require more time to cook than cooking over a wood fire and women in developing countries are reluctant to start cooking many hours earlier. Study found also that for some, switching to non-flame-based heat have effects on the taste of food. Even if new sun oven devices seem to overcome the cultural obstacles, the fact remains that the cultural aspect of any project is a key factor of durability.

To the question of how should biomass production and the related market activities be organized to minimize environmental harmful impacts and maximize social welfare and taking into account cultural aspects. Biomass is a lucrative market, a vital output for local communities and essentially it replies to basics needs. In this sense it is a necessarily devil. Experiences show that biomass energy can be sustainable when embedded in socio-ecologic management. In this regard, the paper brings about prior Environmental Economy thinking as basic and comprehensive approach but also demonstrate its limitations regarding cultural considerations. The future dilemma is that given that biomass energy is of paramount importance to Africa numerous activities have to take into account sustainable practices maximizing the economic, environmental and social benefit with cultural considerations. In this regards research projects should be aimed to assess systematically key variables of durability.

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