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Saving ForestsFueling a Health and Climate Crisis?

Fueling a Health and Climate Crisis?

Traditional Cookstoves: Fueling a Health and Climate Crisis?

Benjamin Ritter and Kevin Karl
|November 14, 2022

a woman sits next to a cookstove with an open flame and smoke

Cooking with wood or other biomass is a serious source of indoor air pollution in developing countries. Photo: Karan Singh Rathore via GPA Photo Archive

We’re here due to charcoal,” announced Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan at a conference in Dar es Salaam on November 1, as she unveiled ambitious latest plans to spice up clean energy use throughout the country by as much as 90% over ten years.

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

President Hassan hopes to vary this by requiring most Tanzanian institutions — any group that gives services to greater than 300 people — to modify to cleaner cooking technologies and fuels inside 12 months.

But why the deal with cooking, and why the frenzy?

The Climate and Health Impacts of Cooking

In response to latest data developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, with assistance from the Food Climate Partnership, the full emissions from household food consumption account for the equivalent of 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That’s roughly 8% of the worldwide 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 essentially driven by its cookstoves and fuels used for cooking. Together with Tanzania, one-third of the worldwide population relies on biomass — wood, charcoal, or animal dung — or highly polluting fuels comparable to 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’s accountable for nearly 3.8 million premature deaths and tens of thousands and thousands of injuries and illnesses every year.

As well as, women and kids may spend as much as 20 hours per week in collecting firewood and 4 hours per day cooking over traditional stoves — opportunity costs which will come on the expense of college attendance or work and hobby interests. In areas of conflict, these long hours harvesting firewood removed from home may also raise the risks of gender-based violence and physical attack. These risks and costs will only increase as forest degradation forces women and kids farther afield to search out firewood to cook and warm their homes.

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

These indirect emissions are difficult to quantify, since sustainable collection and combustion of biomass is typically considered carbon neutral over the long-term — burning plants and trees unlocks and releases carbon emissions roughly reminiscent of how much carbon the plants originally faraway 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 aren’t equally distributed amongst countries. Whereas residents of most industrialized countries have access to wash cooking technologies — advanced electric and propane appliances or high-efficiency woodstoves — only 10% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to those clean cooking alternatives, in comparison with 36% in East Asia and 56% in Latin America and the Caribbean, in keeping with 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 wash 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 provide you 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 greater than 500 variations of modern stove designs — constituted of metal, ceramic, clay, brick, or cement — powered by fuels like biogas, wood pellets, electricity, solar, and liquefied petroleum gas.

Investments within the clean cooking sector total tens of thousands and thousands of dollars and have been growing by an annual compound rate of 20% since 2014. A minimum of 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 range 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 large shift toward these cleaner and more efficient technologies?

Barriers to Adoption for Clean Cooking Solutions

The truth is that, despite impressive recent growth, total investments within the clean cooking sector are still far wanting the estimated $10 billion per yr needed to attain universal access by 2030.

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

  • Most wood fuel or biomass for cooking is collected moderately than bought, which suggests 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 kids are the first direct beneficiaries of improved cookstoves, male heads of household often control the family’s financial decisions and are less likely to speculate in latest stoves or fuels.
  • Households that buy or receive an improved cookstove may engage in fuel stacking by continuing to make use of traditional cookstoves and biomass fuels alongside the brand new appliance.

Lessons for Tanzania and COP27 Policymakers

Each of those barriers can and must be mitigated through thoughtful, context-specific policies that enable private sector development and supply 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 ladies, and $200 billion for climate impacts.

President Hassan is correct 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 can scale their local clean cooking sectors, develop modern and locally appropriate technologies and fuels, and secure long-term funding to make sure 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 Latest 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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