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Wood fuel transitions and their impact on tropical ecosystems

School of Geosciences

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Dr C Ryan No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

full details here:

About 3 billion people use wood fuels to meet their energy needs, and this accounts for more than half the global wood harvest. Therefore wood fuels are a key component of forest and woodland ecosystem ecology, particularly in developing countries in the tropics.
Wood fuel use is changing as governments and NGOs promote transitions to more “modern”, cleaner fuels, whilst at the same time, a changing climate and enhanced atmospheric CO2 is driving major changes in tree growth. For example in southern Africa, enhanced CO2 is thought to be causing tree encroachment in savannas which is partially held in check by harvesting for wood fuels. This is one example of how the changing use of wood fuels and the changing ecology of tropical forests and savannas will influence each other. Due to the scale of wood fuel harvesting and the rapidity of ecological change in the tropics it is vital to understand these wood fuel-ecology interactions, but to date this has only been examined at a small scale. This PhD will address this by undertaking a global, case-comparative analysis spanning all the major ecoregions of the tropics.

The project will utilise a case study approach to analyse the changing woodfuel-ecology dynamics at a range of sites representing common ecosystems in the tropics, analysing sites both with and without wood fuel interventions. This may include, but is not limited to, sites in India, Guatemala, Haiti, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, which are all locations where the supervisors are involved in ongoing projects. At each site the student will collate existing socio-economic data on woodfuel use over time, working with a range of partners from other research institutions, NGOs and the private sector. This will be related to remotely sensed time series of how the ecosystem is changing, in terms of woody biomass, landscape connectivity and land cover. For both the social and ecological aspects the student will need to collect additional data in the field to calibrate and validate the larger data sets, including both ecological surveys and qualitative social data.

- Major research questions
1. How is the changing demand for wood fuels affecting the ecosystem structure and connectivity of tropical forests and savannas, and interacting with the effects of other global environmental changes?
2. Which policy interventions and exogenous factors (e.g. price fluctuations in globally traded fuels and agricultural commodities) have had the largest impact on the harvesting of biomass in forests and savannas?
3. Are there “spillover” effects from energy interventions that produce landscape change? (e.g. labour being freed up for agriculture leading to deforestation).

- Requirements and skills
This project would suit a student with an interest in energy, sustainable development and the role of ecosystems in supporting rural livelihoods. You will develop numerical skills, the ability to handle spatial data, and statistical techniques for impact evaluation; all skills that are very much in demand in many research and applied contexts in development and other fields. The mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches is also a very desirable skill set in both academia and professional practice.
The project will therefore suit students with a wide range of backgrounds, including but not limited to environmental science, geography, and quantitative social science, ideally with Master’s level training in e.g. international development or spatial data. More important than past experience or existing knowledge is enthusiasm for learning new methods and concepts.

Funding Notes


Further reading
• McNicol IM, Ryan CM et al. (2018) Carbon losses from deforestation and widespread degradation offset by extensive growth in African woodlands. Nature Comm. 9, 3045.
• Bailis R et al. (2015) The carbon footprint of traditional woodfuels. Nature Climate Change, 5, 266–272.
• Agarwala M et al. (2017) Impact of biogas interventions on forest biomass and regeneration in southern India. Global Ecology and Conservation, 11, 213–223.

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