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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cambodian Charcoal Market Is Booming

By Simon Marks

According to a 2008 study conducted jointly by Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, the United Nations Development Program and the environmental group Geres, the number of households projected to use charcoal as an energy source in Cambodia will rise from about 500,000 currently to more than one million in 2015.

That projected increase has raised concerns among environmentalists, who note that charcoal production entails the removal of vast quantities of woodland, often in naturally growing forests, as well as high levels of “black carbon” or soot — which scientists say plays a significant role in global warming.

The report values the current annual market for charcoal in the capital, Phnom Penh, at $25 million — a number that is expected to more than double in size during the next five years based on current trends.

And while the authors note a shift towards modern energy sources, “the demand for firewood, charcoal, kerosene and batteries will remain high over the next decades,” the report said.
Wood burners for cooking, which are used extensively in Asia and Africa, produce large quantities of soot particles, which scientists say is responsible for as much as 18 percent of global warming.

David Beritault, an energy expert at Geres, said that much of the charcoal made in Cambodia has not been sufficiently burned to complete its transformation from wood, a phenomenon that leads to higher levels of black carbon in the atmosphere.

Black carbon can travel long distances, warming the air and melting ice by absorbing the sun’s heat.

But charcoal, if produced correctly, can burn almost smokeless, and is less polluting than wood — although it does emit greenhouse gases during its production. Geres is currently involved in a so-called “green charcoal” project that aims to make charcoal with more energy-efficient wood.

“If we can control the process we can produce the same amount of charcoal but with less wood,” said Mr Beritault.

Environmentalists also say that water filters, which cost about $7.50, could be used instead of having to boil water to make it potable. Moreover, Biodigesters, which provide a cheap source of fuel by converting organic waste into biogas, is another option that could improve health conditions inside households that cook with wood and charcoal.

Still, 27 percent of residents in Phnom Penh are currently using charcoal as their main energy source, according to the Ministry of Industry, and urban demand for charcoal is expected to nearly triple over the next two decades.

Khiev Thim, a charcoal merchant in the Phnom Penh who, on a recent morning, sold roughly 1,300 lbs. of charcoal to a avariety of households and small businesses, said that demand in the city was fierce.

“We sell it everywhere in the city,” he said, “except along the main roads.”

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