On the back burner no more, improved cookstoves (ICs) in the last month have seen a resurgence in global attention. At the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting held last month in New York, Hillary Clinton helped launch the “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves,” a public-private partnership flush with $250 million to support the uptake of improved cookstoves across 100 million households.
The issue of ICs is so important because according to the International Energy Agency, 2.5 billion people use biomass for cooking and about 1.5 million people die prematurely each year from respiratory-related problems associated with incomplete, indoor combustion. Instead of using LPG canisters or piped natural gas to satisfy their cooking needs, the poor have to use alternative solutions. This could be in the form of firewood (see picture above, taken from fieldwork we conducted outside Ulaanbataar in July), coal, or dried animal dung. Several years back I spent a month with a family in Ladakh, posing as a migrant laborer but really just trying to learn more about organic, subsistence farming. At 3,000+m., it stays cold nearly the year round and even if you’re not using it for heating, you’re using the stove for cooking. The stove ran on a steady diet of dzo dung, a dzo being the byproduct of crossing a yak with a cow (and an incredibly unwieldy animal to boot), and the entire family suffered from eye redness/irritation as a result.
Anecdotal evidence only goes so far. A 2004 paper by Ezzati et al. provides a great review of the literature, revealing who’s suffering, to what degree, and what are some of the ways out – electricity-driven cooking drawn from renewable energy technologies is just one they propose. [Alternatively, for those who encounter gated access, this Bulletin of the WHO report from 2000 will do the trick.] Women and children bear a disproportionate share of the burden, both on the front-end (gathering the fuel), and the back-end (suffering from exposure to indoor pollutants). Children under 5 make up about 2/3rds of the total number of premature deaths and the breakdown of disease burden across country development status is also startling. The 22% of the global population living in “demographically and economically developed” areas suffer 1.4% of the total disease burden attributed to acute respiratory infections, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Improved cookstove distribution programs have been around for about three decades, with major pushes taking place in China and India. According to a recent paper by Tina Adler, 120 million are currently in operation in China, but none in India. I had met someone awhile back who also was conducting research on the effectiveness of subsidized cookstove projects in India. She found not a single working cookstove, but at least one that had been turned upside down and converted into a grain storage container. To learn more about why some of these programs have failed, head on over to this brief write-up by Dan Kammen.