Food nourishes human life, but cooking can be deadly. That’s the stark reality for 3 billion people[i]—40% of the world’s population—because of their stoves. In much of the developing world, households still use rudimentary stoves powered by charcoal, coal, and manure, and these fuels release deadly particulate matter.
Household air pollution, in fact, is the leading environmental cause of disability and death worldwide[ii]; in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 3.8 million deaths[iii] occur each year due to unclean cookstoves—more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined[iv].
According to the Drawdown Organization[v], conventional cookstoves are responsible for 2 to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. This estimate includes both the long-term CO2 created when harvesting these toxic fuels and so-called short-lived climate pollutants[vi] (such as black carbon[vii], methane, and carbon monoxide) that have immediate health impacts on those breathing them.
Public-private partnerships like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves[viii] and the Gold Standard[ix] foundation have recently sought to address this worrying situation. Progress has been slow, however. By 2014, only 1.3%[x] of the 3 billion people using unsafe cookstoves had access to healthier alternatives.
Were that percentage to grow to 16% by 2050, Drawdown estimates a reduction of 15.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s why clean cookstoves ranks as #21[xi] on the organization’s top 100 solutions to mitigate climate change.
Less measurable—because even more priceless—are the lives that will be saved.
Cleaner Cookstoves: Complications and Collaborations
You’d think that a technology designed to transform the daily cooking habits of 3 billion people would rank far higher on Drawdown’s top 100 list. Unfortunately, efforts to create, distribute, and install cleaner cookstoves have proven hit-and-miss for a variety of reasons.
When the Global Alliance for Cleaner Cookstoves (GACC) initially launched its program to replace conventional cookstoves with cleaner ones, they chose the most environmentally sustainable versions. Only recently has its leadership acknowledged that this decision was a mistake[xii]; in trying extra hard to be sustainable—especially to attract the investments of companies eager to offset their own CO2 emissions—they chose less efficient stoves than traditional ones. As a result, most communities stopped using them.
To rectify this mistake, the GACC has switched to propane (also known as liquified petroleum gas, or LPG) stoves. This change is a good reminder that fixing one environmental problem can often mean compromising on other aspects of sustainability.
Success stories do exist, though, and they point to the importance of involving the people who will be doing the cooking in the process from the start. Between 2014 and 2016, London-based NGO Practical Action[xiii] helped install nearly 9000 LPG stoves in Sudan’s North Darfur[xiv]. These stoves have reduced household fuel consumption by as much as 70%, resulting in major savings on monthly fuel costs. Projections suggest that up to 300,000 tons of CO2 may be saved over the next decade through this program.
These benchmarks were reached precisely because the Greater Nile Petroleum Company agreed to redesign their low-smoke LPG stoves to have smaller fuel canisters and larger hot plates to make it easier for women to cook kisra, the large circular flatbread that is a staple for the Sudanese.
As an important added benefit, this initiative[xv] has empowered women in the community, thereby increasing Darfur’s climate resilience. (#6[xvi] on Drawdown’s top 100 list is educating women and girls for this reason.) Women simply have more time on their hands, as they no longer need to journey far to collect fuel. Moreover, cooking times have decreased, and the new technology has even caught the attention of their husbands. As a woman named Fatima explained[xvii],
I spent 3-4 hours cooking before. Now, in one hour I can do everything. I recommend LPG to my friends. I tell them it, has been a benefit and they should go and get it. With LPG, my husband is now willing to help me.
Cleaner cookstoves may have a long way to go to become standard practice in the places that need them. The importance of the project, however, is crystal clear: no one should have to die making their food.
[ii] Drawdown, 44.
[x] Drawdown, 45.