Charcoal energizes everything from backyard barbecues to industrial metallurgy, but its environmental impact is worse than once thought. New research finds that policy changes could make charcoal more sustainable.
Eclipsed by energy sources such as gas and electricity, charcoal is often left out of contemporary discussions about the global energy transition. It’s a resource that some manufacturing processes, such as steel and silicon production, are switching to, and one that people worldwide continue to use by choice. Charcoal production grew from 36 million tons in 1995 to 54 million tons in 2019.
Part of that rise is because charcoal is—in theory, at least—a renewable resource. Charcoal is most often made from trees, which can technically be replanted. But with a notoriously decentralized and informal supply chain, charcoal’s environmental impact is hard to measure, and it’s unclear whether charcoal producers are truly replacing the trees they cut down.
In reality, the current state of global charcoal production does little to live up to its “renewable” reputation, according to a UN Environment Programme brief authored by Penn researcher Reto Gieré and alumna Catherine Nabukalu. Gieré, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Nabukalu, Gieré’s former student in the Master of Environmental Studies program, traced charcoal’s supply chain and examined the rudimentary ways in which it is produced and the implications of its growing demand around the world.