Charcoal vs gas, the hard truth

09May 2016
The Guardian
Charcoal vs gas, the hard truth

The government and numerous other stakeholders are pushing for a swift and widespread shift from charcoal use to natural gas.

The arguments are simple and straight forward, gas is clean, charcoal is not, gas has no polluting impact charcoal releases pollutants, gas is extracted with little to no impact on the environment while numerous hectares of forests are lost every year as a result of tree felling for charcoal, the list goes on and on.

Statistics show that an estimated 96 per cent of households in Tanzania use wood fuel or charcoal for cooking and heating. The case is so even for urban centres including the country’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam where it is estimated that 91 per cent of households use charcoal for cooking.

With such huge demand, it follows that the pressure on forests is mounting at an alarming rate and as a result forests are being cleared faster than they can grow back. To curb the distractive trend, the government and conservationists are advocating for gas use in favour of charcoal burning.

In fact the government has placed several regulatory measures on tree felling, charcoal burning and transportation. However due to the high demand for charcoal the producers have not stopped production, on the contrary, they have resolved to burn charcoal illegally.

Now more than 70 per cent of the trade is illegal, admits the Tanzania Forest Services. It's completely unregulated and untaxed and along with its environment impact, a recent World Bank report estimated that the government is losing about USD100 million a year in uncollected revenue from the sector that is estimated to be worth 650 million dollars according to the bank.

The reports estimate that Tanzania burns one million tonnes of charcoal every year the equivalence of clearing more than 300 hectares of forest every day all in a bid to bridge the huge energy gap that is facing the country.

However, government efforts to curb the trend are not bearing much fruit not with millions depending on charcoal for cooking fuel and its trade supporting more than a million jobs; if you cut down production all of these people would lose their livelihoods and sole source of energy.

The advocated alternative is natural gas however, with a 15kg cylinder of cooking gas going for an average of 55 000 shillings, the average Tanzanian, like the 91per cent of Dar es Salaam residents who rely on charcoal, cannot afford it. Now when you include the not so cheap gas cooker it requires to burn the gas, the alternative is clearly not plausible.

So this puts the country at a stalemate, ban charcoal production and trade only to cause illegal tree felling and charcoal production or allow charcoal production and face the resulting environmental consequences.

While the latter does not sound feasible, it is proving the best way forward. Unless the price of gas and the related appliances falls drastically to rival that of charcoal, then it cannot be a sound alternative.

However, there are options of sustainable charcoal production under an inclusive regulatory and management regime that will see controlled production complemented by Afforestation efforts and unless government embraces this reality, charcoal will continue being produced, illegally.