In rural and semi-rural India, a common sight in low-income households is of women sitting on the floor, hunched over “chullas” or traditional cooking stoves. For several hours a day, thick black smoke gets continuously emitted from under pots and kettles as the women use a mix of wood, hay, or cow dung as their main sources of fuel.
The lack of accessibility to clean cookstoves is an issue in several other developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, around 2.4 billion people worldwide, or one-third of the global population do not have access to clean cookstoves. The ones who are disproportionately affected by this form of indoor air pollution are particularly women and children who spend the most time at home.
Researchers estimate that indoor air pollution from using solid fuels or biomass in residential cookstoves results in around 500,000 million premature adult deaths annually. Most of these deaths were among women who lived in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
In a 2020 study published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, researchers found that across 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, children below five are at a 30% higher risk of dying from indoor air pollution when traditional cookstoves are used inside their homes.
The environmental cost of the plumes of smoke from billions of traditional cookstoves is just as alarming. Every year, burning wood and other solid fuels for cooking contribute to a gigaton of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions. That is on par with the combined annual emissions from the aviation industry.
Around 25% of black carbon emissions globally come from burning wood and charcoal in households for cooking purposes. Black carbon aerosols absorb sunlight and trap heat in the lower atmosphere — making them up to 1,500 times more potent than CO2. Strong winds carry black carbon aerosols to the poles and high-altitude mountainous regions, making glacial ice melt faster.
Relying on woodfuels for cooking also contributes to forest degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and climate change, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Clean cookstoves: A neglected and orphaned climate solution
For years, scientists have stated that phasing out traditional cookstoves is a win-win for climate and public health. They further estimated that phasing out traditional cookstoves over the next 15 years could bring down global surface temperature by roughly 0.08 degrees Celsius by 2050, mostly because of lower black carbon emissions.
Also, the lives of 260,000 people up to the age of 30 could be saved in 2050 by phasing out traditional cookstoves in 101 countries. Despite that, improving access to clean cookstoves is one of the most neglected and orphaned climate solutions.
Although affordable clean cookstove technologies were developed almost two decades ago in developing countries like India and Brazil, the deployment has been painfully slow. The WHO observed that access to clean cooking fuels like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and stove technologies only increased by 1% per year from 2010-2019.
This marginal improvement was documented in only five countries including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. But in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the status quo of mainly using traditional cookstoves prevailed.
A 2021 report revealed that the amount of climate finance allocated for clean cooking has been appallingly low. In 2019, only $133.5 in finance was tracked for clean cooking solutions. This is a far cry from the estimated $4.5 billion required in annual investments for making universal access to clean cookstoves a reality.
The report further delved into the challenges that high-impact countries like Mozambique, Ghana, and Vietnam face in terms of making clean cooking affordable for consumers. By 2030, consumers in these countries will need financial assistance worth $37-48 billion; around 70% of this funding will need to go towards LPG cylinders, ethanol, and electricity access as fuels for clean cookstoves.
How government schemes failed to promote the use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders in India, Ghana, and Peru
While gas stoves connected to LPG cylinders have their drawbacks, researchers have found that these gas stoves are still cleaner and far more sustainable than the traditional ones that rely on wood, charcoal, and animal dung.
Many countries have tried to provide LPG connections to poor households to phase out traditional stoves. In 2016, the Indian government launched an ambitious scheme that distributed 80 million LPG cylinders (that can be connected to gas stoves) in several rural areas across the country by 2020.
Yet, barely a year after the government provided LPG cylinders to rural households, 18% of them could not afford to refill their empty LPG cylinders. Another 33% had opted for only two to three refills. At the end of the scheme, more than 51% of the scheme’s beneficiaries went back to burning firewood and agricultural residues in traditional stoves.
A similar issue arose in Ghana after the government announced a subsidy program for LPG connections in the 1990s. Although more consumers started buying LPG connections, 74% of households were still stuck with using firewood as their primary cooking fuel. On the other side of the globe, the Peruvian government launched an LPG subsidy in 2004 to encourage low-income households to switch to gas stoves. But the scheme only benefitted wealthy communities.
In a report published by the Observer Research Foundation, author Manjushree Banerjee, an independent researcher, and energy expert wrote, “Considering the complex interplay of forces that influence access to, and adoption of, clean fuels and technologies, no single fuel or initiative taken by a particular country can be highlighted as a singular model for all others to emulate.”
“The issue of affordability must be addressed to sustain and increase the use of clean cooking fuels and technologies. State-funded programs, such as subsidies on clean cooking fuels and/or technologies, have been among the initiatives taken by many countries,” Banerjee further noted. “However, more substantial state-led interventions are needed in countries where the majority of the population still lack access to clean cooking facilities.”
In a 2015 pilot study published in Energy Policy, Banerjee and colleagues surveyed 1000 rural households who were given electric induction cookstoves — that is the least damaging to public health and the environment.
But the researchers observed that only 5% of the households were able to switch from firewood to electricity as their primary cooking fuel. Power fluctuations and rising electricity bills made electric stoves a financially unviable option for the majority of rural households on a long-term basis.
The desperate need for more investments in scaling up clean cooking technologies
Before COP26 last year, 67 countries included clean cooking-related goals in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), according to the Clean Cooking Alliance. While some countries directly addressed clean cooking in their NDCs, others focused on climate targets like forest conservation, air quality, and household energy.
Earlier this year, the Indian government announced the Clean Cooking Mission, which aims to provide solar panels and batteries for energy storage to 250 million households to make communities use solar-powered electric induction stoves. Still, the big question is whether adequate funding will finally be allocated for investing in existing clean cooking technologies.
Currently, traditional stoves’ environmental and public health impacts cost communities an estimated $330 billion a year worldwide. By making the transition to clean and affordable cooking stoves, there would be immense reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by up to one gigaton or a billion metric tons of CO2 per year from now up to 2050.
To date, the issue of dirty traditional cookstoves has remained underfunded and neglected because it predominantly affects Black and other women of color and children in poor rural areas worldwide. Making clean cooking systems accessible to all not only tackles a climate justice issue but will also bring the world a step closer towards achieving gender equality.
Life Sciences, Forbes – Healthcare