Let's embrace renewable energy to reduce degradation of forests

A section of the Kaptagat forest in Elgeiyo Marakwet County that has been destroyed by illegal loggers. [Kevin Tunoi, Standard]

As we start the new year, let us think about the value of trees and forests, considering the amount of carbon sequestered by forests. More importantly, let us think about the forests and the biological diversity that will be saved through energy transition.

By energy transition, I mean shifting from overreliance on wood fuel, which primarily includes firewood and charcoal, to cleaner and renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower or even biogas.

Nearly all of Kenya’s rural population depends on wood fuel as their primary energy source for cooking, lighting, and heating. A significant number of urban dwellers also rely on wood fuel in the form of charcoal for cooking, although some slum residents still use firewood.

The imposition of a 16 per cent value-added tax on the liquified petroleum gas (LPG) is assumed to have triggered an upsurge in demand for wood fuel, particularly in the urban areas.

This increased demand places a lot of pressure on forests, leading to deforestation and forest degradation. We lose valuable biodiversity if trees are harvested indiscriminately for charcoal production and firewood.

Indigenous forests are known to host unique flora and fauna that are will vanish if their habitats are not protected or preserved. We need to understand that some plants and animals are endemic to specific areas; once disturbance exceeds tolerable levels, they either migrate or die.

One might argue that we are planting many trees to compensate for those harvested for charcoal or firewood. That is far from the reality. The implications associated with forest destruction are far-reaching, hence, linear solutions are inadequate.

First of all, trees take years to mature. Secondly, planting trees does not address the underlying causes of forest losses; instead, it is treating an ailment.

My point is that we need to adopt long-term solutions that address the problem holistically. Kenya has a great potential for renewable energy sources. We are already tapping this potential in some areas. We have an opportunity to expand to more marginalised areas that are not connected to the power grid and exclusively depend on wood fuel to meet their energy needs.

Solar energy, for instance, could be harnessed in drier, hotter areas and distributed to nearby households at a relatively cheaper rate. Similarly, biogas production from animal dung could be introduced and installed in strategic locations for shared usage, especially among pastoralist communities or in areas where animal husbandry is common.

The least the government can do to promote biogas production is to subsidise the cost of installation. The areas I just mentioned are already degraded and regularly faced with environmental challenges such as drought, famine, and desertification. The vulnerability is exacerbated by climate change.

You will realise that most people depend on charcoal or firewood because of several intertwined factors. Persons in marginalised areas have no alternatives. They depend on wood fuel entirely. In most cases, they are not even aware alternatives exist.

Affordability, reliability, and availability of sustainable energy sources determine the probability of a shift from wood fuel reliance. We have to agree that the cost of electricity in Kenya is relatively high for an average household; it is even worse for rural homes seeking initial installation. Using electricity for cooking is close to impossible.

The LPG that has served the cooking needs of many urban residents and some rural inhabitants is unavailable in some areas, inaccessible and unreliable; recently, it has become quite costly.

The government, both state and county levels, should spearhead and fast-track energy transition not only for social and economic development but for ecological improvement. They need to lower the taxes on LPG or zero-rate them as this is an almost immediate transitional fuel in cities and towns.

By so doing, it will encourage those in the rural areas to shift. It should also come with sensitisation on the value of saving forests as a carbon sink and a way of mitigating climate change effects.

Make it easier for every citizen to access alternative energy sources, avail power transformers to the marginalised communities to encourage more installation. Remove the bureaucracy that citizens are subjected to as they seek to be connected to the national grid. Realise that these obstacles create a myriad of problems from different angles. It is also about time the forest and energy policies are reinforced and actionised.

Fundamentally, saving forests and forest products is not just a mere act of environmental conservation but an activity that directly affects our existence. Adopting cleaner and renewable energy sources is of ecological and livelihood importance.