Clean Cookstoves: Tackling a burning issue

Fumes from cooking kill two million people each year in the developing world. But will changing behaviour also help the environment? By Alice-Azania Jarvis

It sounds too good to be true: a simple campaign that could, in one fell swoop save lives, prevent illness, combat climate change and liberate millions of women from some of their most onerous of tasks.

At the opening of last week's Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Hillary Clinton announced an initiative which aims to do just that. In introducing the new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, she pledged to replace 100 million traditional stoves – widely used for cooking and heating in households across the developing world – with affordable, efficient, environmentally-friendly models by 2020.

Almost two million women and children die from inhaling stove smoke each year. Countless more develop pneumonia, lung cancer, emphysema, and other diseases. And according to the World Health Organisation, cooking smoke is responsible for more deaths than malaria. In fact it is the developing world's fourth-biggest killer, disproportionately affecting women and children while adding to their workload with its fuel-foraging requirements. To top it all off, cooking smoke damages the environment. Not only do stoves rely on timber (a precious global commodity), but they chug out carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon. Scientists estimate that, after industrial emissions, stoves are the second leading cause of climate change.

An initiative to curb their use is, then, common sense. Isn't it? In many ways, yes. Campaigners for the issue have long argued that action was overdue; given the transformative effects that Clinton et al claim for their programme, it seems they may have been right. But while the problems posed by cooking smoke aren't new, the solutions on offer are. Until recently, an affordable way of replacing stoves had yet to be found. Typical prices ranged from a few dollars to $100, with more efficient models at the top end of the scale.

Recently things have changed. A surge in innovation has produced clean stoves costing as little as $25, with far more durability than traditional models (a factor which allows for further long-term savings). According the Alliance, those involved in the initiative – the governments not just of the US but also of Germany, Norway, and Peru, as well as a range of NGOs – hope that stove manufacturing will provide a source of long-term industry and employment in the regions affected.

Still, let's not get carried away: $25 may be a record low within the clean stove market, but when you're talking about consumers who scrape by on $2 a day, it sounds like less of a bargain. An estimated 500 million households – some in the remotest parts of the world – are dependent on burning biomass for cooking and heating. Even if the Alliance's 100 million figure was achieved, the stove problem would remain significant. And as Clinton herself acknowledged, the US contribution of $50m is but a fraction of the sum needed. "Like anything," she explained, "we have to start somewhere."

Even with sufficient funding, the Alliance faces a long struggle before its goals come to fruition. Prashant Mahajan is Earthwatch's Learning and Communications Manager in India, where he has overseen a range of sustainability initiatives, including the introduction of more efficient stoves. Over the years, he has seen a variety of tactics deployed to convince households to go green – not all successful.

"In rural India, 70 per cent of households depend on stoves," says Mahajan. "In the 1990s, we struggled to win people over. With rural communities you need to get a sense of engagement from the inception point. It is essential for people to be involved in constructing the stoves. It creates employment and a sense of ownership."

Since then, green stoves have proven a significant success across India: "Once we had developed local support for the idea, thorough education and demonstrations, people could see the benefits." Coupled with a series of local and national government subsidies, green stoves entered the mainstream. "They became a desirable item. Even people with low incomes wanted them and would work to pay for them."

Now, says Mahajan, the only communities who remain resistant to the idea are those who, despite lowering prices and subsidies, still can't afford the stoves or remain unaware of the benefits. "It is about economics and education. Those are the two determinants." The Alliance will be seeking to address those factors. How successfully remains to be seen.

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