Biogas cookstoves can help nearby forests grow, new study finds

 

Degraded forest in Karnataka, India

Clean-burning cookstoves powered by biogas help surrounding forests grow and regenerate, according to a new study by Columbia University scientists.

The study in India finds that forest biomass and regeneration increased significantly after 10 years of introducing biogas stoves; because the stoves run off the gas produced by decomposing cow manure, they eliminate the need for cutting down trees and lopping them for firewood.

This new finding suggests that biogas stoves, in addition to their role in improving indoor air quality, impacting household nutrition, and reducing carbon emissions, may help India reach its climate goals around improving forest cover and increasing carbon sequestration.

Cookstoves in India

About 41% households in India are dependent on fuelwood as their source of cooking, according to the 2011 Census of India survey. However, burning fuelwood for cooking increases indoor air pollution, exacerbates health issues, contributes to climate change, and destroys wildlife habitat.

Since the 1980s, aid organizations and governments have been installing biogas stoves in some regions in India to reduce the impacts from indoor air pollution and reduce carbon emissions, but these have largely failed due to poor post-installation support.

Results from study

Published in Global Ecology and Conservation, the new study compared forest biomass and regeneration in the areas around villages using biogas or wood for fuel in the Indian state of Karnataka.

The study shows that people dependent on fuelwood for cooking reduce their fuelwood use when provided with a viable alternative, the biogas stove. Switching to biogas allowed the surrounding forests to recover.

The findings have great significance for India, which committed in its national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement to increasing its forest cover to enhance carbon sequestration. India is also working on delivering clean cooking systems for people through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) and biogas programs around the country.

Forest regrowth is, of course, contingent on many other factors besides how much fuelwood is taken from forests. For example, in some locations, forest may not regrow despite biogas stove use, as the ecosystem may have already been damaged so much that it needs active restoration. Also, since biogas technology is dependent on ownership of cattle, this scheme does not work for people who are too poor to own cattle, or in areas where there isn’t enough rainfall for people to own cattle.

This study can help policymakers understand how clean cooking programs can support India’s – and other governments’ – targets of improving forest cover and carbon sequestration.

If conditions are right, and if done at scale and implemented in a way that promotes long-term change, shifting households from burning fuelwood to cleaner technologies can help forests grow and can help countries such as India achieve their climate goals.

By Richie Ahuja

By Meghna Agarwala, Post-doctoral Research Scientist of Columbia University, and Richie Ahuja, EDF Regional Director of Asia

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