31 October 2017

Small things en masse

Darren Lapp, Director, Senior Manager Timber Investments | My experiences

My father told me when I was young that small things can have a large impact when repeated en masse. He used one example in the 1970’s, when McDonald’s had still only served millions of people and not hundreds of millions, of the potential of accessing markets in China with its (even then) huge population. In the post-Vietnam War days he also spoke of China’s ability to march soldiers out of the country, four abreast, forever.

Africa, in the general absence of better alternatives, uses almost 750 million cubic meters per year of wood for heat and cooking. Much of this is in the form of inefficiently prepared charcoal.

Fast forward four decades and we are aware of some very different challenges relating to quantity and cumulative impacts. Every year the planet’s atmospheric CO2 level increases by approximately 2ppm. It actually dips slightly during the northern hemisphere summer when northern forests, the Earth’s largest lungs, are photosynthesizing but, on balance, it accelerates every year.

Africa, and this may be a surprise considering Western industrial use of timber, is the continent that consumes the largest of amount of forest products and most of this is from unsustainable deforestation. Africa, in the general absence of better alternatives, uses almost 750 million cubic meters per year of wood for heat and cooking. Much of this is in the form of inefficiently prepared charcoal. This issue of deforestation was recognized at the 2015 Climate Change conference in Paris with the agreement of 195 nations and materialized in the 100 million hectare challenge – reforesting or rehabilitating 100 million hectares of African forests by 2030. This, while an excellent objective, will conservatively cost $500 billion, probably more like a trillion, and require an unprecedented amount of willingness on the part of (normally short-sighted) governments to support the cause. In the last two years since the Paris conference, although a handful companies such as Quantum Global, New Forest Company, Miro and APSD continue to develop their greenfield forest plantations, there has been virtually no net change in the trajectory of deforestation.

Small things en masse. Let’s look at some of the realities and needs on the ground. Most charcoal production in Africa is typically done by local ‘entrepreneurs’ who harvest native forests (illegally), pile the logs tightly, cover them with clay to create an oven, and slowly burn the wood with minimal oxygen resulting in the charcoal. The conversion ratio for these crude ovens is usually 8 to 10 tonnes of logs to produce one tonne of charcoal. With better technology, contained units that better control the temperature and oxygen have conversion rations closer to 4 to 1. If all charcoal production were done with this level of efficiency, deforestation resulting from charcoal production could be reduced by over 50%. Burning charcoal for heat in the traditional ‘open fire’ way is also inefficient and the smoke produced when burning indoors has been shown to cause significant health issues. Again, using improved technology, low cost energy-efficient charcoal stoves can be 150% more efficient than traditional stoves.

The simple math then is, using improved technologies, efficient production and consumption of charcoal could reduce deforestation for charcoal down to 15-20% of the current level. That would be a colossal improvement. Efficient stoves can be had for less than $15. If every family in Africa had such a stove the total cost to provide them would be less than $4 billion, rather more palatable than the cost of the loftier 100 million hectare objective, which (though still a critically important objective) is $500 billion. Of course there are significant social challenges to overcome such as convincing and supporting charcoal producers to convert to a very different business model, but the potential for significant impact exists by implementing these relatively small changes on a broad scale.

Darren Lapp, Director, Senior Manager Timber Investments

Darren grew up in the Rocky Mountains of beautiful British Columbia, Canada.  Over his career he’s operated across the renewable timber products supply chain from reforestation to harvest and milling operations to investment evaluation and asset management.

Darren has spent the last five years in the African forestry sector working to expand plantation forests, revitalize forestry businesses, and develop integrated land management plans.  His formal education includes business, biology, forest management and an underused history degree.

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