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We all know the old catchphrase: think globally, act locally. Yet, with the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, we also have to think locally. For too long, scientists have overlooked the impacts of these global crises on communities and missed many opportunities to find real, actionable, local solutions for environmental change.

World leaders are in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, but few expect revolutionary progress from the summit. Global-scale proposals to tackle climate change, such as geoengineering for carbon capture or aerosol release into the atmosphere, are both technically difficult and require long-term intergovernmental commitments. What if instead, the solutions are among us, our friends, and social connections? Through inclusivity, listening, understanding, and respect for local communities, we could trigger a diversity of responses that scale up to global levels.

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Consider the Kilosa District in Tanzania. I have been conducting a study with local communities to understand how to effect an energy transition that maintains community livelihoods while reducing carbon emissions and impacts on biodiversity. Most communities in sub-Saharan Africa depend on charcoal as their main energy source. They produce the charcoal directly from local trees, degrading forests around them. However, recent government directives require they transition to a less carbon-emitting fuel. Such a transition to alternative energy carriers requires large investments in infrastructure and assumes widespread public acceptance of other energy sources.

But in Tanzania, such infrastructure is not easily erected. There are no propane sources or production facilities in Tanzania; solar energy requires a lot of foreign investment and capacity, and the country’s water resources do not allow for hydraulic energy. All the available options would reinforce the country’s dependence on foreign investment and could lead to further land-grabbing.

My colleagues and I try to address these seemingly conflicting goals. First, some facts: Charcoal production is widespread. It is mostly consumed by urban communities and produced in rural areas, where we estimate that it is responsible for about 7 percent of deforestation. Its effect on forest degradation is still unknown, although selective wood harvesting for charcoal leads to changes in plant architecture from a tree to a stump to stimulate growth — called coppicing. This may have implications on the interaction with other species and the ability of these trees to provide habitat for mammals, birds, and insects.

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To complicate the matter more, charcoal biomass harvesting is tree-specific. Villagers harvest only certain species of trees because their wood density determines how long the carbonization process will take. Even the aromatic compounds of the wood play a role because they impact food flavors. In Dar es Salaam, locals purchase charcoal from certain regions based on the flavors it imparts in their cooking. Cultural specificities are entangled in environmental issues but are rarely considered by global solution seekers.

A man rides with goats and charcoal on the roof of a truck, seen through the window of a vehicle, in Ethiopia on May 1.
A man rides with goats and charcoal on the roof of a truck, seen through the window of a vehicle, in Ethiopia on May 1.Ben Curtis/Associated Press

How then, would these charcoal-producing communities fare in a transition to alternative energy sources? To answer this question, we collaborated with the residents of six Tanzanian villages. Some villages are applying a community-based natural resource management model (CBNRM), which views the community as a part of the environment, not apart from it. This governance model provides a charcoal harvesting scheme, trains charcoal producers, and offers an entry point to the market. The benefits are shared among the community. Other villages do not have a formal governance structure for charcoal. In this case, the forest is a common open resource, and charcoal production is unregulated.

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Using satellite technology and advanced algorithms, we’ve found that charcoal production occurs in about 3 to 12 percent of the forest managed by the six studied villages. However, the pattern of harvesting and production is quite different. Some villages have a harvesting plan that stipulates how much charcoal can be produced given the area of forest available and the biomass of that forest. We find stronger social networks in villages governed with a CBNRM model, which improves the sharing of knowledge on all aspects of charcoal production. Even so, the villagers still identify charcoal as an important source of livelihoods that would be threatened if a transition were to occur.

Charcoal won’t disappear overnight. For now, these initiatives aim for a future transition. Even then, the plan is dependent on complex external factors. Benefits of charcoal production are currently decreasing due to the high taxes on charcoal production and the difficulties in securing the market. But this trend might reverse since alternatives to charcoal production are few. If charcoal demand grows, villagers could intensify their production, regardless of governance model. They might even switch to coal as the main livelihood. Coal is not ideal for many reasons, but it supports the livelihoods of about 40 million people just in sub-Saharan Africa and there are currently no alternatives — or investments — for a cleaner energy.

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Despite these uncertainties, our example shows that when guided by scientifically based charcoal harvesting plans, villagers can sustainably maintain production until the energy transition takes place. Moreover, bringing communities to the table early on and working with them brings needed stewardship for resolving biodiversity and climate threats.

Such initiatives are not limited to developing countries. In many other places in the world, communities and stakeholders team up to solve comparable problems —sharing the management of water resources, solving conflicts over grazing lands for livestock, and coordinating food production, to name a few. But for this strategy to play out to its fullest potential, a drastic shift in the way we think about environmental problems is required. We have to improve our evaluation criteria for these initiatives to account for local impacts, and we need to understand better which ones have the potential to be scaled up.

Climate and biodiversity loss are threatening the way our local communities operate, with cascading global consequences. Reinventing the way we think about development and redefining who is in power to enable the changes is a necessary step on our long way to tackle climate and biodiversity crises.

Maria J. Santos is professor of earth systems science at the University of Zurich.