Charcoal: Essential for Survival, Devastating for Environment

The need for fuel is helping to destroy the world’s second-largest rainforest
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 17, 2022 1:28 PM CDT
Charcoal Demand Is Killing Africa's Largest Rainforest
In this 2015 photo, people carry bags of charcoal on their bikes as they go down a hill in Mweso, Democratic Republic of Congo.   (AP Photo/Melanie Gouby)

(Newser) – The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa's poorest and most populous nations, with nearly 90 million people, all of whom—like other humans—need to eat. But only 17% have access to electricity, and gas-burning stoves are a luxury. That leaves charcoal as the staple fuel for 90% of the population. As a result, the world's second-largest rainforest is suffering, according to New York Times reporter Dionne Searcey. It doesn’t take much charcoal to meet one family’s daily needs, but millions of families rely on it. There are multiple environmental effects, starting with deforestation, although logging and slash-and-burn agriculture also contribute. Charcoal production also releases atmospheric carbon, and charcoal use releases even more carbon and degrades air quality in homes and towns throughout the country.

The people Searcey interviewed are aware of the damage, but they say they don't have a choice. Charcoal is vital to their survival, not only for cooking but also for income, as production and trade provide jobs of last resort for millions of Congolese. International groups have worked for years to raise awareness and develop alternatives, but scalable solutions have not emerged. The mighty Congo River itself could offer the best hope. Researchers say it has enough potential hydroelectricity to power the entire country, but dam-building projects have been "mired in disputes between international companies bidding for the work," writes Searcey, and the existing patchwork of hydropower plants has fallen into disrepair. (Read more Democratic Republic of Congo stories.)

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