Monday, September 19, 2011

A Dark Force Behind Climate Change & One Way to Fix It

The city of Maputo, like almost every city in Africa, gets most of its energy in the from charcoal made from hardwood trees.

It is Thursday morning at the crack of dawn in Maputo, Mozambique. I have been working on a project about energy and have come here to this railway yard to get a look at the thousands of tons of wood and charcoal that arrives here every week. The trains are heavily laden, towering even, with their loads stretching off into the distance. They have arrived overnight from more than five hundred kilometers away.

Far away at the front line of this destruction thousands of people toil in the ever-retreating forest, cutting trees, making charcoal, and earning just a few dollars a day. The station master holds up my photographic shooting, saying we do not have the required permits to work here, even though we have a letter from the Mayor of Maputo, a special filming permit from the film board, and journalistic accreditation. He and his private security guards stop me from shooting while one of our great helpers goes out to get further permission from the local railway authorities.

While we wait he explains to my colleague that the trees are retreating so far that the army of wood cutters is starting to run up against the Kruger/Limpopo national park on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. We ask whether they replant the trees. He seems very surprised at the notion, as if he and his crews had never thought of it. He laughs nervously, shifting in creaky chair. The local charcoal mafia runs this train yard through dubious government contracts and this is the sharp end of the energy stick. A sinister energy is in the air here, almost like we are interrupting a private party that everyone is slightly embarrassed about attending.

Maputo, like almost every city in Africa, runs off of charcoal. The average salary is so low that charcoal and firewood are the only cooking methods most people can afford. Even affluent people often cook in their closed apartments with charcoal, ignorant of the very serious health risks.

Maputo’s two million people are almost wholly dependent on this weekly train of charcoal and the many trucks that also bring it into the city. Thousands of trees a week feed this relentless need for energy and the way they are managed the forests of southern Africa offer a finite source. According to UN statistics the trees will be wiped-out in a few decades, but before that happens the cost of getting the charcoal to the market will become prohibitive.

Salma Ngolodi counts cash with a smile after she sells a full bag of charcoal. The real way to save forests is to make money for communities without cutting them down, something that the UN REDD system hopes to make possible.

The deforestation is a double blow for climate change in Africa. Trees anchor soils, without them floods wash away the topsoil that small farmers depend on. The trees that were removing carbon from the air are now being burnt and contributing to the growing amount of carbon and something even more insidious, called Black Carbon.

According the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “Black Carbon (BC) has recently emerged as a major contributor to global climate change, possibly second only to CO2 as the main driver of change. BC particles strongly absorb sunlight and give soot its black color. BC is produced both naturally and by human activities as a result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Primary sources include emissions from diesel engines, cook stoves, wood burning and forest fires.”

Anyone who has ever felt a black plate heat up in the sunshine knows that black absorbs heat the best. What this means is that those little black soot particles from forest burning and charcoal cooking heat up the air by coloring clouds a darker shade and also fall on snow and ice covered areas, speeding their melting. In fact, in the journal Nature Geoscience, almost thirty percent of the warming in the arctic is directly attributable to Black Carbon.

Dead trees, dead-end energy systems, this all sounds like doom and gloom, like the black death....but in fact there is a lot of potential here. The great news is that unlike gaseous CO2 that remains in the air for decades, Black Carbon needs to be constantly thrown up into the air or else it settles, so if we could reduce Black Carbon emissions, then within a short space of time, perhaps two or three years, we could slow the earth’s warming by as much as 30%. This is the best hope for action that could potentially save us from runaway climate change, or at least buy us some time.

A Charcoal Train at dawn, waiting to be unloaded in Maputo. Wood is stacked on top of the bags.

The other great part of this story is something called REDD+. It stands for Reducing Emissions from Destruction and Degradation, and it is one of the few great hopes for Africa’s forests. It is a plan being compiled through the UNFCCC (the folks who brought us the Kyoto protocol) which will hopefully be agreed upon at the COP17, the 17th Conference Of the Parties, which is meeting in Durban, South Africa in December this year. If REDD gets the go ahead it will create a framework for countries like Mozambique to get funding to stop the wholesale destruction of their forests.

Projects and governments in the developing countries that stop or slow deforestation would be paid for keeping their forests standing, essentially monetizing a healthy forest.

The main charcoal train yard in Maputo, Mozambique.

One way this funding could be effective is to cover the costs of a city-wide natural gas infrastructure that gives people a cheaper and cleaner alternative to charcoal. Throughout the country charcoal users cited cost as the main barrier to switching over to a cleaner type of fuel. Mozambique has large offshore natural gas wells, so by paying for the gas infrastructure to be created they could use this local source of energy and stop the destruction of their forest resource.

 Unloading a Charcoal Train in Maputo, Mozambique.

Back at the charcoal train yard our assistant returns around eight thirty in the morning with the required letter from the railway director. By nine, thousands of people arrived to start unloading the charcoal from the train one bag at a time. The air filled with black dust and the shouts of wholesalers as they started distributing the city’s energy supply through both official and non-official buyers. The wood on top of the charcoal is thrown off first then the big white bags of precious charcoal are lifted gingerly off the train cars in a vast dance-like operation reminiscent of Dante’s inferno.

This is where the vastness of the charcoal problem in Africa is best seen and understood, and like many problems they are often just “solutions in waiting”.

Ladies collect wood for cooking and charcoal making in Mozambique at sunset.