Liberia: Inadequate Access to Energy a Recipe for Deforestation, SDI Executive Says, Reflecting on the COP15 Abidjan Conference


The executive director of Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), Wilfred Johnson, has described access to reliable energy as fundamental in safe-guarding Liberia’s forest against deforestation but added that inadequate access to energy is a recipe for continuous deforestation in Liberia. 

Report by Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh

Johnson made the submission in a statement emerging from the recently held fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The COP15 Abidjan Conference themed: “Land. Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity”,  held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, brought together world leaders, scientists, civil societies, youths, and women groups including the international community to discuss and adopt policies to drive progress for sustainable land management and to combat drought and deforestation.

At the close of the Conference, leaders adopted several policies and one of those policies was the multi-partner Abidjan Legacy Programme aimed at increasing sustainability and ambitions while protecting and restoring forests and lands and improving the resilience of communities and ecosystems to climate change.

With his entity’s long-standing records in natural resource management, the Sustainable Development Institute executive director identifies the burning of charcoals as one of the major contributing factors to the cutting down of trees which he says has lasting environmental impacts on the environment, climate, and ecosystem.

He added that when most of the population has access to clean and affordable energy, there would be less pressure on Liberia’s forests and the risk of deforestation and land degradation will be minimized.

“As good as those policies seem, the practicability is what we at the SDI would like to focus on, it’s a good policy that was adopted at the COP15 some of which is just similar to other local/domestic policies we have governing the forest sector, but not much has been done in enforcing these local policies,” Wilfred Johnson told this paper.

As good as the outcomes of the recommendations and policies coming out from the COP15 conference may seem, Wilfred Johnson recommends that countries such as Liberia contextualize those policies and make them practical such as the strengthening of electricity supplies to the population and job creation.

“The more Liberians have access to clean, and affordable energy, and on top of that jobs, who will not want to graduate from cooking on fire-woods or charcoal to using electronic or gas cooking stove in their homes?” 

Photo of a local a charcoal site in Lofa- residents gathering the coal to prepare for bagging (photo credit: Augustine G. Kessellie)

Liberia is a low-income country in the energy transition. In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia,  less than 20% of the population has access to stable and affordable energy, according to a report by the United States Agency for International Development. Nationally, less than 3% of the overall 5 million population has access to electricity, according to Quadracci Sustainable Engineering Lab at Columbia University.

The government with support from its international partners had set a target that, by 2030, it will connect or serve 1 million customers by connecting 70% of the population in Monrovia and providing access to 35% of the rest of Liberia.

Wilfred Johnson also identified Liberians’ old method of farming where farmers cut down trees and change farming location year after year and the cut trees are being used for charcoal production which is supplied to both rural and urban dwellers.

“It’s a good thing to talk about the need to stop cutting down the forests and trees which the SDI has and continues to create awareness, and lead policies dialogues around, but how many of the population have electricity in the urban areas least to talk about the rural areas. In the rural areas, the people are used to cutting the forest to farm and using the trees for coal and every year they change their farm spot because of their perception that the ground loses all the nutrients during each farming season, and this has been going on for decades, which is an excuse for deforestation, but we (Liberians) have a long way to go.”

Acknowledging the reality that people who burn charcoal depend on the business as a major source of income, Wilfred also recommends alternative and sustainable livelihood and job creation as a better way to move people who survive from the charcoal business.

The SDI fears that given the risks Liberia’s forest sector is already experiencing, if care is not taken the country will continue to lose a vast portion of its forest.

In 2021, Liberia lost up to 128,000 hectares (ha) of the natural forest due to deforestation. This is equivalent to 129Mt of CO₂ of emissions. That’s according to a report by the Global Forest Watch.

At the end of the United Nations Convention on Combating Deforestation (UNCCD) COP15, at least 38 decisions were adopted, including migration and gender, that highlight the role of land in addressing multiple crises.

Delegates also agreed to adopt robust monitoring and data to track progress against land restoration commitments including new political and financial impetus to help nations deal with the devastating impacts of drought, build resilience, and a US$2.5 billion Abidjan Legacy Programme that will help future-proof supply chains geared towards tackling deforestation and climate change.

The conference also saw the launch of regional initiatives in support of the Africa-led Great Green Wall. About nearly 7,000 participants and delegations from 196 countries including the European Union attended this year’s COP15 Conference in Abidjan.

Among the key highlights from the COP15 after two weeks of deliberations are plans to:

  • accelerate the restoration of one billion hectares of degraded land by 2030 by improving data gathering and monitoring to track progress against the achievement of land restoration commitments and establishing a new partnership model for large-scale integrated landscape investment programmes;
  • boost drought resilience by identifying the expansion of drylands, improving national policies and early warning, monitoring and assessment;
  • learning and sharing knowledge;
  • building partnerships and coordinating action; and
  • mobilizing drought finance.

The forum also agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought for 2022-2024 to look into possible options, including global policy instruments and regional policy frameworks, to support a shift from reactive to proactive drought management. It also resolved to address forced migration and displacement driven by desertification and land degradation by creating social and economic opportunities that increase rural resilience and livelihood stability, and by mobilizing resources, including from the diaspora, for land restoration projects.

Other major highlights were the need to adopt policies to Improve women’s involvement in land management as important enablers for effective land restoration, by addressing commonly encountered land tenure challenges by people in vulnerable situations, and collecting gender-disaggregated data on the impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought; and to promote decent land-based jobs for youth and land-based youth entrepreneurship and strengthen youth participation in the UNCCD process, among other things.

This story was produced as part of a virtual reporting fellowship to the UNCCD COP15 supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.