18 July 2008

Nigeria: The Effects of Biomass Burning On Mother Nature

Wood is a product of the process of the natural recycling of elements in the air and the surface of the earth that makes life on earth possible. Life existed for millions of years without the use of fossil fuels but, since prehistoric times, mankind has used wood for heating and cooking.

The heat produced by burning firewood is actually the energy of the sun, the ultimate source of all energy on planet earth. Through the process of photosynthesis, arguably the single most important thing that happens on our planet, trees are able to store solar energy as chemical energy that we can use for heat when the sun abandons us to the cold dark days of Harmatan. Burning wood is just the quick reversal of this process, liberating the suns heat when we need it most.

Unlike the burning of fossil fuels like gas or oil, which many believe to be upsetting our climate for the worst, burning firewood releases no more harmful greenhouse gases than would be produced were the wood to simply rot on the forest floor. If we are responsible in the ways we select, cut, and burn our firewood, wood burning can actually be the correct choice for the environment too.

All firewood contains water. Freshly cut wood can be up to 45% water, while well seasoned firewood generally has 20-25% moisture content. Well seasoned firewood is easier to start, produces more heat, and burns cleaner. The important thing to remember is that the water must be gone before the wood will burn. If your wood is cut 6 months to a year in advance and properly stored, the sun and wind will do the job for free. If you try to burn green wood, the heat produced by combustion must dry the wood before it will burn, using up a large percentage of the available energy in the process. This result is less heat delivered to your home, and literally gallons of acidic water in the form of creosote deposited in your chimney.

Biomass burning, in the form of savanna fires and firewood for cooking and warmth, is widespread during the Harmattan periods in Nigeria. The results indicate a consistent pattern of maximum concentration in the highly populated areas close to the city centre, falling significantly in the sparsely populated outlying areas by up to an order of magnitude during peak biomass burning, suggesting that much of the smoke particles in the city are removed by wind.

Biomass burning is widespread, especially in the tropics. It serves to clear land for shifting cultivation, to convert forests to agricultural and pastoral lands, and to remove dry vegetation in order to promote agricultural productivity and the growth of higher yield grasses. Furthermore, much agricultural waste and fuel wood is being combusted, particularly in developing countries. Biomass containing 2 to 5 pentagrams of carbon is burned annually, producing large amounts of trace gases and aerosol particles that play important roles in atmospheric chemistry and climate. Emissions of carbon monoxide and methane by biomass burning affect the oxidation efficiency of the atmosphere by reacting with hydroxyl radicals and emissions of nitric oxide and hydrocarbons lead to high ozone concentrations in the tropics during the dry season. Large quantities of smoke particles are produced as well, and these can serve as cloud condensation nuclei. These particles may thus substantially influence cloud microphysical and optical properties, an effect that could have repercussions for the radiation budget and the hydrological cycle in the tropics. Widespread burning may also disturb biogeochemical cycles, especially that of nitrogen.

At Garin Bussa, a village along Kaduna Express road, the logging of fire wood for economic activity is on the increase thereby impeding on the afforestation program of the government. A firewood seller, Isaiah Tanko, said that he has been in the business for a long time now adding that it is his primary source of livelihood. He said that the people cut down the trees from the village forest noting that they make money from the sales of firewood.

Isiah said that they have no alternative source of income than to venture in the firewood trade adding that the chemicals used can release dangerous amounts of arsenic and other very toxic compounds into your house.

Apart from renewable sources such as solar, wind, etc., which currently meet a negligible portion of the communities' needs, coal, oil and gas are the major fuels used. These are hydrocarbons formed from vegetation buried by nature millions of years ago. Without human intervention, they would never contribute to pollution of the atmosphere. By contrast, wood unless it is buried by some means or another, sooner or later will either burn or rot releasing roughly the same quantity of greenhouse gases by either process.

To consider the use of firewood without an assessment of the effects of increasing the use of alternative fuels is a very narrow and short-sighted approach. It would need to include the emissions caused by the generation and the transmission or transport of the energy used.

There are grounds to believe that the drying effect of thermal pollution may also be contributing to the shortage of rainfall. As firewood averages about 20% moisture, its widespread use in the metropolitan area may reduce the drying effect caused by other forms of heating.

The existence of particulates or toxic elements is not evidence of pollution - it is their existence beyond the capacity of nature to handle them that causes pollution.

It is quite obvious that, in Garin Bussa, the collection of firewood poses a measurable threat to the environment, because man deliberately or accidentally indulges in bringing the desert closer.

In view of the high level of unemployment among people, the physical identification of these sites would be a useful occupation for a number of them.

The effects on the environment in general of the use of firewood should not be considered in isolation and the growth of the metropolitan area and its consequent greater use of energy for all purposes should be thoroughly researched.

The contribution of thousands of motor vehicles idling at traffic lights because too many people want to use the same roads at the same time should also be calculated. The environmental benefits from dispersing the population instead of concentrating it in big cities are likely to be of great significance. .

In other countries, the impact of thermal and other pollution has been noted well beyond the source of the problem. The use of firewood in metropolitan areas may be more appropriate than that of fossil fuels, which are the major source of heating.

Use of fossil fuels is the main cause of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which in turn is a major cause of global warming. Sustainable firewood production systems have the potential to reduce fossil fuel use and attendant carbon dioxide emissions. Within a specified period of time, the net greenhouse gas (GHG) benefit of burning firewood to displace other forms of energy depends on the growth rate of the forest, management system used, quantity of fossil fuel required for processes such as establishment and harvesting of trees, and transporting the firewood to households, and efficiency with which the firewood is burnt.

To this effect, Ahmed Sanda, Director Sustainable Development Centre in FCT, said that a healthy environment and a healthy economy are inseparable, as natural resources are the source of monetary wealth and must be preserved adding that there is need for public awareness to enable people know the cause and consequences of their actions.

Comparisons of carbon dioxide emissions were made both within and between these ecosystems and their management on net emissions from other greenhouse gases, and on other environmental attributes such as biodiversity and land management for remediation of water quality and soil salinity and acidification.

In contrast, there is generally little carbon dioxide produced per unit of energy from burning firewood collected from harvest residues and other material from beneath a native forest, while there is actually a net sequestration of carbon per unit of energy produced from burning firewood collected from a coppiced plantation.

Damage to wildlife habitat from firewood cutting, along with the serious health effects of particulate pollution from wood fire smoke, are serious issues which are challenging our love affair with wood fires.

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