October 7th, 2010 | Posted in Environment
by Jason Bremner, program director, Population, Health, and Environment
Hillary Clinton recently announced the formation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – a United Nations Foundation-led public-private partnership that aims to create a global market for clean cookstoves. More than 20 founding partners (including the U.S. Government, which has committed $50 million) have committed to the target of “100 by 20” or 100 million households adopting clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.
“What’s a clean cookstove?” might be your first question. I’ve always been a huge fan of improved cookstoves since first seeing them in Nepal over a decade ago. The basic idea is to have a closed stove (as opposed to an open fire) that burns fuel more efficiently and ventilates smoke outside the home. There are many different examples, some made with local materials, others that are high-tech, but the main point is to improve the air quality inside the home and reduce the amount of fuelwood that households need to collect. The great thing about this relatively simple technology is that it has multiple benefits for small children, young girls, and women, and potentially on forests and our climate as well.
Many households in developing countries still cook over traditional cookstoves and open fires with wood, charcoal, or animal dung as their main source of fuel. In Uganda, for example, the 2006 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) revealed that 99 percent of households rely on wood or charcoal as their main source of fuel. What’s the harm in cooking with wood or charcoal over an open hearth? First, indoor cooking smoke has been associated with a higher risk of acute and chronic respiratory infections, the leading cause of infant mortality. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.9 million people each year die prematurely from exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires. Second, the burden for collecting wood and charcoal usually falls to women and girls, and may have multiple short-term and long-term impacts on their health and well-being. Studies reveal that women and girls who spend more time acquiring water and fuel resources for the household are less likely to complete their schooling or participate in the labor force. Finally, in conflict settings, women collecting water and wood face a greater risk of gender-based violence.
Fuelwood collection and charcoal production also affect the local and global environment. Depletion of forests for fuel wood and charcoal can impact local watersheds and thus water availability and also results in the loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, both the burning of fuelwood and charcoal as well as the cutting of forests result in emissions that contribute to climate change. Clean cookstoves burn more efficiently (they produce more heat with less fuel), and thus produce less greenhouse gases and reduce fuelwood needs.
So the benefits are clear, but the challenge is still great. Small-scale efforts to improve cookstoves and create alternative fuels have been going on for decades, but I’ve yet to see anyone take this technology to scale. Some of the challenges have included costs, durability, and reluctance of households because of the cultural importance of the hearth and preferences for smoke-flavored food. The creation of this new alliance, however, seems to have bounded over one of the hurdles — a lack of investment. I for one hope that “100 by 20” can be reached and sustained.