For the billions of people who rely on food cooked over smoky open fires, a less-polluting stove seems like a clear solution. The devices allow people who have limited resources to use the same fuels — wood, charcoal, animal dung and agricultural waste — but generate less toxic fumes and therefore save millions of lives.
For decades, that apparent win–win strategy has held great appeal for big international donors, non-governmental organizations and engineers. This week, for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced grants to six universities for more research into clean-cooking stoves.
Unfortunately, these efforts are failing, at least on the broad scale.
Even though high-profile programmes have distributed millions of stoves to households in south Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is hard to find signs that the stoves are being widely used. There is a vast gap between reported accomplishments and what researchers see when they step into people’s homes.
The crux of the problem is that simply supplying the stoves does not establish demand for them.
As a News Feature reports on page 548, women often complain that the stoves do not meet their needs. Some designs require wood to be chopped up into small pieces, thereby creating extra work; others do not burn hot enough, break easily or are too small or too expensive. Cooks from Bolivia to Bangladesh will use the stoves only if the devices make their lives easier. Too often, this is not the case, so the stoves get set aside — or are modified to work more like the traditional, pollution-producing stoves.
The downbeat assessment will not be popular with those who distribute the devices, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a coalition based in Washington DC. But it should not come as a big surprise. In 2012, a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, called Up in Smoke, found no long-term improvement in pulmonary health or in fuel savings among villagers who had received the stoves, mainly because people had abandoned the devices.
“It is time for a fundamental shift in strategy — one that moves people away from burning biomass entirely.”
The alliance countered that the stoves just need to be adapted to meet local needs and that users need more training. The perpetual claim is that the biomass stove of people’s dreams is just around the corner.
But some researchers looking at the health effects of cooking fires say that it is time for a fundamental shift in strategy — one that moves people away from burning biomass entirely.
Efforts could be redirected to providing people with the energy they most aspire to: not a stove designed by someone in the developed world to cook cleaner, but the actual stoves used in the developed world, which run on electricity or hydrocarbons such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
This is not an absurd goal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that bringing electricity and clean-cooking facilities to every person on Earth by 2030 will cost US$49 billion a year. Although that is a considerable sum, the agency points to major commitments by Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria to aggressively switch large portions of their population to cooking with LPG.
Where will all this new energy come from? It will require some additional consumption of fossil fuels, and that will increase the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the extra pollution would be minimal at the global scale: the IEA estimates that it would boost CO2 emissions by just 0.7% above its base scenario.
Renewable sources should be able to supply a major fraction of the needed energy: electrical micro-grids that use agricultural waste, solar cells or wind turbines to provide energy are popping up, for instance. Clean-cooking programmes have an enduring appeal, just not for their intended users. It is time to rethink the approach.
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