Cleaner Cookstoves and Fuels – Ingredients for a Healthy Planet

Radha Muthiah

Cooking is a daily ritual we all do. To many, it is a chore. But for nearly three billion people—about half of the world’s population—it is something much more. Like many women in the developing world, Sarah Roba and her family in Kenya cook over an open flame or use inefficient cookstoves that threaten their lives and damage the environment. “The smoke from cooking affects us,” Sarah says. “They make this world black. They also make us black inside.” Sarah’s mother died when she was ten, and her sister lost her battle with lung cancer.

To put it bluntly, this type of cooking kills. Prolonged exposure to harmful smoke and fumes contributes to illness and the premature deaths of an estimated 4 million people each year. Crude cooking stoves produce toxic emissions that poison the air, both inside the household and outdoors, and consume precious natural resources. The damage to the ecosystem cannot be understated.

Crude cooking stoves produce toxic emissions that poison the air, both inside the household and outdoors, and consume precious natural resources.

According to the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, access to clean energy will foster economic growth, increase social equity, reduce local pollution and alleviate climate change.

Burning solid fuels like wood, agriculture waste and animal excrement releases carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and black carbon, all major contributors to global climate change. According to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, an international group of national and NGO partners mobilizing to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, approximately 21 percent of black carbon emissions come from the use of inefficient cookstoves and fuels. The adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels represents an ideal mitigation measure for addressing climate change and will have an important role to play at the 20th UN Conference of Parties in Lima, Peru later this year.

Warming from black carbon, or soot, contributes to the accelerated melting of glaciers and alpine snow and changes precipitation patterns impacting drinking water supplies and crop irrigation. The inefficient use of fuel for cookstoves contributes to deforestation and degradation as forests are cut to make charcoal to meet urban cooking needs. Researchers estimate that the burning of household cooking fuels is a major contributor to air pollution in cities, and causes between 25 to 30 percent of damaging air pollution in India.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation and comprised of 1,000 partner organizations, is working on viable, cost-effective solutions for more efficient and cleaner cooking. But we need far greater public awareness of the issue and its implications.

In the salt producing region of Gujaret in western India, I met with workers who understand the benefits of efficient cookstoves in an area where trees are scarce. One woman named Sharadaben told me she spent at least four hours a day collecting wood for her traditional cookstove, the chulha. Its smoke hurt her eyes and deterred her ability to carry out other economic and education pursuits.

Sharadaben is a member of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an Indian non-profit organization of more than two million women that is working to distribute clean cookstoves and fuels in Gujarat and other states. SEWA estimates that fuel-efficient stoves would cut in half the average need for wood.

More efficient cookstoves can reduce fuel use by 30 to 60 percent and produce fewer greenhouse gases and black carbon emissions.

Most of the people I spoke with in Gujarat are willing to invest in fuel-efficient stoves, but there is a lack of quality stoves and little financing for this type of investment. That is why the Alliance and our partners have been taking a market-based approach to solving the cookstove problem. We are helping groups like SEWA with technical assistance, consumer financing, and connections to manufacturers of clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels.

Our public and private effort is making great strides. In just four years, the Alliance has helped drive more than $50 million in investment into the sector and raised $50 million in grant funding. Every dollar of grant funding has generated one dollar of investment. The manufacturing, marketing and distribution expertise of the private sector is ensuring cleaner and more efficient stoves are products consumers will buy and use. And we have just started.

Our latest figures show that more than 20 million clean cookstoves have been manufactured and distributed around the world helping to save tens of thousands of lives, protecting millions of trees, and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We are well under way, but much more work needs to be done to meet our adoption goal of 100 million clean and efficient cookstoves by 2020.

More efficient cookstoves can reduce fuel use by 30 to 60 percent and produce fewer greenhouse gases and black carbon emissions. If more people use cleaner burning cookstoves it will help mitigate climate change and improve air quality.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. Viable clean cooking alternatives depend on the fuels and technologies available, whether they are affordable and they meet the households’ needs.

That is why the Alliance and its partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, are supporting our research to maximize the value of cleaner cooking and ensure rapid delivery of results. Some of the projects include: mapping hotspots for environmental degradation to identify where clean cookstoves and fuels can have the greatest impact, determining how much black carbon is reduced when old cookstoves are replaced, and better understanding the relationship between cookstove emissions and public health.

“Health and environmental impacts of air pollution and climate expand beyond the borders of any one country,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “This research funding seeks to provide new tools to reduce health risks for the nearly three billion people around the world who are exposed to household air pollution from crude stoves.”

We know efficient cooking makes a difference.

We know efficient cooking makes a difference. In Kenya, Sarah Roba now uses a cleaner cookstove that she says produces less smoke and consumes less fuel. The amount of firewood she would use in a week now lasts for a month, meaning less time searching for fuel and more time to do other things. “We can help our children in school, visit the elders, and help the sick. I even set up a shop to improve myself,” says Sarah.

Adoption of cleaner cookstoves and fuels may seem like a small act to improve health and the environment. But when you consider the ripple effect of hundreds of millions of people having access to cleaner cookstove technologies, the impact is enormous. It is an economic boon for local communities. Women who spend hours each day collecting wood or other fuel to cook now have time to earn a livelihood for their families and educate their children. People can live healthier, more productive lives. And we have a chance to reverse deforestation and better control climate change. The opportunity to provide people with healthier choices, while at the same time ensuring a healthier planet, is one we cannot afford to miss.

Radha Muthiah is Executive Director of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

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