A Third of the Population Continue to Cook our Planet

Environment Policy Brief #153 | By: Todd J Broadman | March 13, 2023

Header photo taken from: iStockphoto

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Kamal Keshavtupange lights a fire as she cooks food on a stove inside her house in Fangane village, India.

Photo taken from: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Policy Summary

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The methods that many humans apply to cooking their food are proving to have a substantial effect on our environment and health. About 2.4 billion people cook food using a “dirty” biomass method of cooking which uses wood, animal dung, and charcoal fire pits or kerosene stoves. There are two long-term impacts of this approach: the last of our forests are depleted, and the fumes contribute 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, or the annual equivalent of 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In quantity, this ranks alongside the burning of jet fuel for planes.

There are also the human health effects. The use of charcoal gives off particulate matter and soot contributing to widespread illness and an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths. Families that rely on firewood must spend many hours each week collecting it; time that prevents women from more gainful employment and children from their education. Then there is the risk – when gathering wood in remote areas – of violence to women and children.

One alternative to “dirty” cooking is the use of electricity. “Over these years, we’ve come to the conclusion that the really big potential game changer—indeed, we think it is far more than ‘potential’—is electricity,” explains Research Director, Ed Brown, of Modern Energy Cooking Services. But cleaner fuels like electricity are being deployed slowly and not at the rate required. Between 2010 and 2020, an estimated 1.3 billion people were added to the electric grid. Asia has made more progress than other regions.

Another relatively clean alternative is liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and related stove technologies. Yet even here we see a usage increase of only 1% per year from 2010-2019, and it is confined to limited regions within Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Policy Analysis

There is a need for coordinated solutions. Otherwise, efforts to replenish degraded forests will prove futile if communities near to those forests depend on biomass for their cooking. Instances in which the rate of wood collection outstrips the regrowth rate of forests are common. The need is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa where only 10% of the population has access to clean cooking alternatives; in East Asia that number is 36%, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 56%.

There are cultural obstacles as well. In families where men are the decision makers, they often opt not to use clean cookstoves for financial reasons, in spite of the fact that women and children are most impacted. Firewood and animal dung arrive with no hard dollar cost, only the time and labor of those tasked with obtaining it. In addition, many countries subsidize the cost of kerosene fuel. 

When India embarked on a massive rural effort to distribute millions of LPG cylinders for cooking, they discovered that less than 20% of families could afford to refill those cylinders and over half of recipients defaulted back to using biomass fuels.

A similar project to provide villages with electric power for cooking largely failed due to residents being unable to afford the cost of electricity as well as the instability of the power grid.

glo media World Water Week 2016

On a related matter, a 2016 UNICEF report estimated that 200 million hours women and girls spend every day collecting water – a colossal waste of their valuable time. Sustainable means in accessing resources such as clean water & electric power in developing countries, especially impoverished areas, are important goals to ensure a healthier ecosystem, both affecting the environment and culturally.

Photo taken from: Unicef

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 The World Bank has established a clean cooking loan program with $350 million dollars that targets projects in 21 countries, helping over 3.6 million households. The money makes it possible for some families to afford stoves and other equipment. Countries include: Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Lao PDR, Madagascar, Mongolia, Rwanda, and Uganda.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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https://cleancooking.org/  works with a global network of partners to build an inclusive industry that can make clean cooking accessible to all.

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https://www.esmap.org/clean-cooking-fund  a clean cooking fund that aims to scale up public and private investments by co-financing with Multi-lateral Development Bank’s lending operations, catalyzing technology and business innovation, and linking incentives with verified results.

The Earth I logoW

https://www.theearthandi.org/ educates readers on how to best restore our unique role as loving stewards of the natural world.

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