While biomass fuels are considered to be carbon neutral, and use wood residue and production waste that would otherwise rot or sit in landfills, systems to ensure sustainable and healthy resource management are complicated and costly. Because of this, stillborn births are increasing in developing countries, and are robbing them of economic futures. 

An estimated 3.2 million stillbirths occur worldwide annually with 98% of these stillbirths found in developing countries. Researchers in the country are warning that exposure to the smoke produced from biomass fuels is killing Ghanaians at a rate higher than malaria and HIV.

Why is biomass used in developing countries?

In some developing countries, energy from biomass fuels such as wood and agricultural residues represents about 70% of total energy consumption per year. 2.3 billion people in developing countries rely on biomass fuels to meet their energy needs, and these fuels play a vital role in ensuring food security. 

However, biomass energy has its fair share of flaws:  it produces waste products that can harm the environment, such as carbon monoxide and it requires access to water resources, which can often be time-consuming to access easily in developing countries. It may also increase greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the quality of soils over time, since decaying organic matter that acts as fertiliser is cleared to use for cooking or heating.

You might also like: Microplastics Found in Antarctic Ice for First Time

To create a sustainable supply of fuelwood, a variety of tree and forest systems, such as mixed forest plantations and integrated food systems that produce both food and energy are needed, considerations that many people in developing countries like Ghana are unlikely to have. 

Those living in coastal and rural Ghana use biomass fuels for cooking for both household and commercial purposes. Experts say stillbirth occurrences are higher among disadvantaged, marginalised and rural populations. In Ghana, these births are largely due to exposure to either industrial or household smoke. Many people are unaware of the effects of this smoke on their health; it is a byproduct of their work, passed down from generation to generation.  

According to a paper published in the BMJ 2019 and the 2007 Ghana Maternal Health Survey, the situation is affecting many pregnant women in Ghana due to ignorance and a lack of data to prove the impact of the harm caused. Lead author of the paper, Dr Kofi Amega, Environmental Epidemiologist at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana says, “The issue here is that most women who are vulnerable to the exposure don’t even know they are being affected simply because there is no data or physical evidence for them to see until they are sick.”

What can be done? 

Dr Amega and his team are optimistic that an investment into the provision of liquefied petroleum gas at an affordable rate will help solve the problem in the short term. In the long term, the team says that the country’s transport sector needs to properly manage the number of vehicles on the roads and get the public transport system up on its feet to address the situation.

Dr Judith Addo- Quansah, Physician Specialist at the Korlebu Teaching Hospital in Accra, echoes this view and adds that there is little information on how these biomass fuels are used in Ghana. 

There is a dire need for more concrete data on the effects of biomass fuel burning; not just on the environment, but on the people who have to live with the effects. There is insufficient mental healthcare in many developing countries, and the effects of increasing stillbirths are devastating for mothers and economies. The emotional stress these women go through following a stillbirth affects their output at work and in their family units, and a decreasing birth rate has an effect on population growth. In a country where nearly 20% of its population are over the age of 45, a smaller number of economically active citizens will have a devastating effect on Ghana’s future economic output.

In developing countries, plenty of commercial and household energy is powered with biomass fuels and so it is important to be aware of the potential side effects. There should be more information made available to the public that outlines how best to use these fuels. A potential method of doing this is by establishing certification schemes to ensure that bioenergy is created in a sustainable way and adheres to three principles, namely that biomass is produced in an environmentally responsible way, that there is sustainable management of social capital and that biomass production is economically viable.