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The charcoal trap: Miombo forests and the energy needs of people

Werner L Kutsch1*, Lutz Merbold2, Waldemar Ziegler3, Mukufute M Mukelabai4, Maurice Muchinda4, Olaf Kolle3 and Robert J Scholes5

Author Affiliations

1 Johann Heinrich von Thünen Institute (vTI), Institute for Agricultural Climate Research, Bundesallee 50, 38116 Braunschweig, Germany

2 ETH Zurich, Institute of Agricultural Sciences (IAS), Grassland Sciences Group, Universitätstrasse 2, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

3 Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, P.O Box 100164, 07701 Jena, Germany

4 Zambia Meteorological Department, Haile Sellasie Avenue, City Airport, P. O. Box 30200, 10101 Lusaka, Zambia

5 CSIR Natural Resources and Environment, Box 395, Pretoria 0001, South Africa

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Carbon Balance and Management 2011, 6:5  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-6-5

Published: 19 August 2011



This study evaluates the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas fluxes to the atmosphere resulting from charcoal production in Zambia. It combines new biomass and flux data from a study, that was conducted in a miombo woodland within the Kataba Forest Reserve in the Western Province of Zambia, with data from other studies.


The measurements at Kataba compared protected area (3 plots) with a highly disturbed plot outside the forest reserve and showed considerably reduced biomass after logging for charcoal production. The average aboveground biomass content of the reserve (Plots 2-4) was around 150 t ha-1, while the disturbed plot only contained 24 t ha-1. Soil carbon was not reduced significantly in the disturbed plot. Two years of eddy covariance measurements resulted in net ecosystem exchange values of -17 ± 31 g C m-2 y-1, in the first and 90 ± 16 g C m-2 in the second year. Thus, on the basis of these two years of measurement, there is no evidence that the miombo woodland at Kataba represents a present-day carbon sink. At the country level, it is likely that deforestation for charcoal production currently leads to a per capita emission rate of 2 - 3 t CO2 y-1. This is due to poor forest regeneration, although the resilience of miombo woodlands is high. Better post-harvest management could change this situation.


We argue that protection of miombo woodlands has to account for the energy demands of the population. The production at national scale that we estimated converts into 10,000 - 15,000 GWh y-1 of energy in the charcoal. The term "Charcoal Trap" we introduce, describes the fact that this energy supply has to be substituted when woodlands are protected. One possible solution, a shift in energy supply from charcoal to electricity, would reduce the pressure of forests but requires high investments into grid and power generation. Since Zambia currently cannot generate this money by itself, the country will remain locked in the charcoal trap such as many other of its African neighbours. The question arises whether and how money and technology transfer to increase regenerative electrical power generation should become part of a post-Kyoto process. Furthermore, better inventory data are urgently required to improve knowledge about the current state of the woodland usage and recovery. Net greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced substantially by improving the post-harvest management, charcoal production technology and/or providing alternative energy supply.

miombo woodland; deforestation; biomass; eddy covariance; soil carbon