Around the world, charcoal has persisted as an energy resource and retained unequivocal dominance in the energy consumption mix of some nations many years on since modern alternatives were invented. Furthermore, it has secured unyielding significance as a commodity on local and international markets and remained an aggressive competitor to electricity and gas for cooking. Here, we analyze the charcoal supply chain and highlight the rudimentary production techniques common within the sub-Saharan region, using Uganda as an example. Top global producers, importers, and exporters are discussed and, based on fieldwork from ten locations in Uganda, we describe common trade practices, economic contributions and the realities of charcoal consumption in areas with concentrated grid and electricity coverage. Indeed, forest degradation and deforestation in the charcoal trade is indiscriminate and the world’s top producers and exporters of charcoal do not necessarily have vast forest resources. Pyrolysis, the process used to produce charcoal from wood, exacerbates risks of wild fires and deteriorates air quality. Our fieldwork indicates that little to no innovation exists to manage waste materials such as ash and polluting gases along the supply chain. Recommendations for the future include better forest conservation practices and more innovation at the cooking level, because effects of localized environmental degradation inevitably lead to negative impacts beyond geographical borders.
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