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Our forgotten 3 billion

Image credit: Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (Facebook: Creative Commons)

Over 3 billion people across the world still rely on dirty, inefficient cooking fuels. 40% of the entire global population uses biomass such as wood, charcoal, coal and dung for their cooking. The resultant human loss is shocking – 4.3 million people die each year due to the associated household air pollution. These cooking fuels are a detriment to human potential, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Providing clean energy to all is a global issue that must be tackled immediately.

Hilary Clinton identified this issue back in 2010. As Secretary of State, she launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves (GACC). The UN Foundation, aiming to create a competitive and accessible global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions, hosts this public-private partnership. GACC aims to have 100 million homes adopt clean cook stoves by 2020.

GACC has distributed a total of 82 million improved cook stoves worldwide. However, only 23 million are labelled both ‘clean and efficient’. Regretfully, some cook stoves are under the GACC’s threshold for air pollutant levels. Some cook stoves convert biomass to heat energy above GACC’s minimum efficiency levels. Yet, just 28% do both. As a result, a mere 4% of the 3.1 billion-person target market have truly benefitted from GACC’s work. As the leading global organisation for clean cook stoves with 1600 partners, this minimal market penetration is concerning.

It takes 60 seconds for an electric stove like mine to boil water.

In contrast, billions of people spend many hours each day collecting fuel for cooking. In sub-Saharan African households with polluting cook stoves, girls spend 18 hours each week collecting fuel or water, while boys spend 15 hours. These households will then spend additional hours preparing the fuel and labouring over an inefficient cook stove. Women and children are often subjected to these time-consuming tasks, detracting from time spent on education and income-generating activities. Women and girls may also be subject to violence during the long fuel-collection journey.

Polluting cook stoves and fuels are a silent killer.

According to the World Health Organisation, in 2012 the air pollutants released from unclean cook stoves caused 7.7% of global mortality, more than the sum of all deaths from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. This global health burden predominantly falls on impoverished people in developing countries. Lacking energy access is a severe detriment to poverty alleviation.

In India, 64% of the population relies on solid fuels for their cooking needs. This inflicts the nation with nearly 800,000 premature deaths every year.

Deficient access to clean and efficient cooking energy inflicts adverse social, economic and environmental inequalities. In 2015, the World Bank assessed the total economic impact of global solid fuel dependence. In its most severe case, the economic burden came to $222 billion USD annually.

Technology is advancing rapidly in the cook stove market. Unfortunately however, it is not affordable and accessible for all. For electric stoves to function, you firstly need electricity – of which one in seven people in our world does not have access to – and then you need an income to pay for it. Low-income households with electricity access cannot afford the high electricity bills, let alone the capital cost of the electric stove itself.

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), a decentralised and popular energy system, offers a cleaner burning fuel option. However, it is an unrenewable resource and still too expensive for a large segment of the target market. Poor families with volatile incomes frequently return to firewood when they are unable to pay for the replacement gas cylinder. Robust value chains must also be set-up locally to ensure reliable supply, a requirement that cannot always be met in rural areas.

Clean cook stoves offer a great intermediate solution between polluting solid fuel combustion, and LPG or electric stoves. By burning solid fuels on an improved cook stove, which are readily accessible and affordable, air pollution levels may be significantly reduced. The greater system thermal efficiency reduces cooking time and fuel volume requirements. However, the word ‘improved’ is often misused. If the pollution reductions and thermal efficiency improvements are not substantial, the cook stove’s positive impacts are negligible.

According to GACC and the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), the most advanced improved cook stove is a biomass gasification cook stove. The World Bank identifies that this technology offers fuel savings greater than 40%, reduces fuel consumption by over 50% and cuts emissions by up to 95%. Biomass gasifiers may be the sustainable, accessible and affordable clean cook stoves solution we need to invest in. Biomass fuel characteristics such as energy density can also be dramatically improved through pelleting, briquetting and torrefaction.

On no scale is 3 billion a small number. Current investments and policies are severely unsubstantial to meet global cooking energy needs.

Whilst renewable energy innovations stream ahead, we have forgotten to provide the most basic form of clean energy to nearly half the world. Over the 3 years from 2012 to 2014, the Alliance and its partners invested approximately $50 million USD in clean cook stove and fuels enterprises. Comparatively, $768.1 billion USD of new global investments was directed towards renewable energy.

Without dramatic changes, the World Bank predicts the total number of people relying on solid fuels will remain largely unchanged in the future. In 2030, 28 billion people will still depend on fuelwood for cooking and heating. This projection starkly contrasts to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal number seven of ‘affordable and clean energy for all by 2030’.

Inefficient and polluting cooking fuels inflict adverse health, social, economic and environmental impacts. They are a barrier to poverty alleviation and global development. This global burden must be immediately addressed with greater investments, policy changes and involvement from private and public sectors.

But if we don’t act now? Household air pollution will continue to kill nearly 12,000 people and drain over $600 million USD, every day.

Alexandra Devlin is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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