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Traditional Cookstoves: Fueling a Health and Climate Crisis?

a woman sits next to a cookstove with an open flame and smoke
Cooking with wood or other biomass is a major source of indoor air pollution in developing countries. Photo: Karan Singh Rathore via GPA Photo Archive

We are here because of charcoal,” announced Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan at a conference in Dar es Salaam on November 1, as she unveiled ambitious new plans to boost clean energy use within the country by up to 90% over ten years.

Why charcoal? Because many Tanzanians, along with more than 2.5 billion people worldwide, still rely on collecting charcoal, firewood, and other biomass to fuel their cookstoves or to light their homes.

President Hassan hopes to change this by requiring most Tanzanian institutions — any group that provides services to more than 300 people — to switch to cleaner cooking technologies and fuels within 12 months.

But why the focus on cooking, and why the rush?

The Climate and Health Impacts of Cooking

According to new data developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, with assistance from the Food Climate Partnership, the total emissions from household food consumption account for the equivalent of 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s roughly 8% of the global food system’s total footprint — around 16 billion tonnes — which in turn accounts for nearly one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions.

A household’s carbon footprint related to food consumption is largely driven by its cookstoves and fuels used for cooking. Along with Tanzania, one-third of the global population relies on biomass — wood, charcoal, or animal dung — or highly polluting fuels such as kerosene for household cooking or lighting needs.

Burning charcoal and these other “dirty” cooking fuels indoors generates soot, particulate matter, and household air pollution that is responsible for nearly 3.8 million premature deaths and tens of millions of injuries and illnesses each year.

In addition, women and children may spend up to 20 hours per week in collecting firewood and four hours per day cooking over traditional stoves — opportunity costs that may come at the expense of school attendance or work and hobby interests. In areas of conflict, these long hours harvesting firewood far from home can also raise the risks of gender-based violence and physical attack. These risks and costs will only increase as forest degradation forces women and children farther afield to find firewood to cook and warm their homes.

Traditional fuels for household cooking and heating are also responsible for more than 50% of global black carbon emissions, a major indoor air pollutant and short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas. Direct emissions from various cooking systems and fuels, and indirect emissions caused by deforestation-linked biomass collection also add to the global carbon footprint of household food consumption.

These indirect emissions are difficult to quantify, since sustainable collection and combustion of biomass is sometimes considered carbon neutral over the long-term — burning plants and trees unlocks and releases carbon emissions roughly equivalent to how much carbon the plants originally removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. But where biomass collection exceeds the regrowth rate of the forest from which it was harvested, this upsets the balance between carbon sink and source and fuels deforestation and significant carbon emissions.

But these emissions from traditional cookstoves and biomass fuels are not equally distributed amongst countries. Whereas citizens of most industrialized countries have access to clean cooking technologies — advanced electric and propane appliances or high-efficiency woodstoves — only 10% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to these clean cooking alternatives, compared to 36% in East Asia and 56% in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank.

map shows that countries in south america, africa, and south asia are least likely to have access to clean cooking supplies
People without access to clean cooking in 2019. Source: World Health Organization

These significant health and climate impacts of household cooking help explain the motivation for countries like Tanzania, where only 5% of its population has access to cleaner cooking fuels and technologies, to come up with aggressive plans to phase out dirty cookstoves and fuels.

Technology and Policy Solutions

One repository of improved cookstove technologies, the Clean Cooking Catalog, lists more than 500 variations of innovative stove designs — made from metal, ceramic, clay, brick, or cement — powered by fuels like biogas, wood pellets, electricity, solar, and liquefied petroleum gas.

Investments in the clean cooking sector total tens of millions of dollars and have been growing by an annual compound rate of 20% since 2014. At least 53 million efficient or clean cookstoves were distributed by donors between 2010 and 2015. Revenues from carbon credit mechanisms totaled 11 million in 2020.

There are a wide variety of technological solutions, emissions credit schemes, and concerted donor campaigns to facilitate the switch to cleaner cooking — but why are countries like Tanzania still struggling to incentivize a massive shift toward these cleaner and more efficient technologies?

Barriers to Adoption for Clean Cooking Solutions

The reality is that, despite impressive recent growth, total investments in the clean cooking sector are still far short of the estimated $10 billion per year needed to achieve universal access by 2030.

But funding shortfalls explain only part of the picture — efforts to promote clean cooking fuels face a litany of barriers to adoption for these new technologies. These include:

  • Most wood fuel or biomass for cooking is collected rather than bought, which means clean cookstove businesses struggle to compete with low-cost (or zero-cost) traditional cooking systems. National fuel subsidies in developing countries also often keep kerosene fuel costs for cooking artificially low.
  • Even when local markets can provide relatively accessible, low-cost clean cookstoves that provide proven long-term savings, poor households often lack the upfront capital needed for the initial investment.
  • Whereas women and children are the primary direct beneficiaries of improved cookstoves, male heads of household often control the family’s financial decisions and are less likely to invest in new stoves or fuels.
  • Households that buy or receive an improved cookstove may engage in fuel stacking by continuing to use traditional cookstoves and biomass fuels alongside the new appliance.

Lessons for Tanzania and COP27 Policymakers

Each of these barriers can and should be mitigated through thoughtful, context-specific policies that enable private sector development and provide targeted subsidies or interventions for poor households unable to afford the switch.

Globally, our reliance on traditional cookstoves and polluting fuels comes at an enormous price: $1.4 trillion for associated health impacts, $800 billion in lost productivity for women, and $200 billion for climate impacts.

President Hassan is right to directly link her country’s reliance on charcoal and biomass for cooking to Tanzania’s plans for a cleaner, healthier, and more climate-friendly future.

Leaders and policymakers in Sharm El-Sheikh this week should follow Tanzania’s example and commit to effective policies that will scale their local clean cooking sectors, develop innovative and locally appropriate technologies and fuels, and secure long-term funding to ensure universal clean cooking access by 2030.

Benjamin Ritter is a graduate student in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Kevin Karl is a research associate at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, where he focuses on the intersection of food systems and climate change as a member of the Food Climate Partnership.

The Food Climate Partnership is a consortium of scientists and policy practitioners from Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) and Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP), and New York University’s School of Environmental Studies (NYU). The group supports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in its environmental statistics work.

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Ben Blevins
5 months ago

Another way of looking at the issue of locally accessible energy is rather than being a problem for sustainable alternatives; it should be a focus point of interventions. Rather than fostering continued rent-seeking by elites, there should be a design triangulation that fosters horizontal input production rather than wage labor to manage micro-lending regimes to purchase manufactured products.

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