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Clean Cookstoves Get a Global Boost

Participants at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves summit view monitors showing former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she delivers keynote remarks in New York, Nov. 21, 2014.

Indoor air pollution, a health problem that's bigger than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria, is getting a $413 million boost.

The pollution comes mainly from smoky cook fires and kills an estimated 4 million people each year, mostly women and children.

It's also a major environmental problem. Collecting wood for cooking fires is a leading cause of deforestation. And the gases and soot produced from inefficient burning pollute the air and contribute to climate change.

And the number of people on the planet cooking this way is growing.

A woman cooks over a wood-burning fire in India, July 2014. (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)
A woman cooks over a wood-burning fire in India, July 2014. (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves held a two-day summit in New York to fuel efforts to build a global industrial sector that makes and markets affordable, less polluting stoves.

The summit wrapped up Friday short of its $500 million goal, but it secured commitments from more than 70 attendees to bring more global resources to an issue that that has seen decades of failures. The United States pledged $200 million in financial backing and research funds.

Speaking to the delegates Friday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said developing clean cookstoves is a health and environmental challenge, “but it also, if approached correctly, could be an economic opportunity.” Clinton helped launch the partnership in 2010.

Profit potential

With nearly 3 billion people worldwide cooking with traditional stoves, “there is, potentially, a good amount of profit to be gained,” said Alliance executive director Radha Muthiah.

She said 20 million more households are using clean cookstoves than were doing so four years ago. The Alliance has grown from 19 partners to more than 1,000.

Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (Stuart Ramson for U.N. Foundation)
Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (Stuart Ramson for U.N. Foundation)

“We’ve proven that this market-based approach works,” she added. “Twenty million stoves later, we know this is a recipe that can be scaled up.”

The Alliance has concentrated on attracting private-sector investment and developing markets, rather than seeking donor aid. It has backed stove research and worked on performance standards. But Muthiah says one of its most important objectives is simply raising awareness.

“People don’t fully understand some of the impacts of cooking the way they are today,” she said. “Once people understand it, the next question is a fairly obvious one, which is: What are their choices, and where can they have access to these cleaner stoves and fuels?”

Not easy questions to answer, as it turns out.

“It’s a big technical challenge to make a cookstove that has low emissions of air pollutants, that is fuel efficient, and that is low cost so that people can afford it and, most importantly, that it meets the user needs,” said Jim Jetter, cookstove researcher at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“If it doesn’t meet the user needs, then people don’t use the stoves and there are no benefits.”

Cautionary tale

That’s what happened in a 2012 study in Orissa, India. An award-winning Indian development group helped 15,000 households install a relatively simple type of improved stove.

“It’s probably not the technically best stove on the market,” said Harvard University economist and study co-author Rada Hanna, but at $12.50, it’s affordable. It’s mostly made of mud, a plentiful local resource. That saves on shipping costs to a remote region with bad roads. And it uses the same fuel that people are used to.

A chimney diverts most of the smoke out of the cooking area. Lab tests had shown it reduced indoor air pollution.

But over the course of the four-year study, the stoves “slowly fell into disrepair,” said Hanna, “and households continued to use the traditional cooking stoves as well.”

Ultimately, households with new stoves were no healthier than those with traditional ones, and they used no less fuel.

What happened? “People just deemed that the costs were too high,” Hanna said. People didn’t see the value in cleaning and maintaining the cleaner stove, “when there’s a very easy alternative, which is going back to what you were doing before.”

It’s a cautionary tale, she said. “When I started this project, I was very enthusiastic.” As an economist, she had hoped to evaluate the impacts of improving indoor air quality on worker productivity and school attendance.

But the fact that the stove failed to improve people’s health was a warning: Something may work well in the lab, she said, “but we have to think about how people will actually use it in practice.”

Another 2012 study in Kenya found cleaner cookstoves did not reduce rates of pneumonia, a major consequence of indoor air pollution.

Alliance executives are aware of these challenges. Studying how people use the stoves is part of the research portfolio.

“We have seen a lot of failures,” Muthiah said. “Success takes longer to show, but we’re seeing that.”

This week’s summit drew investment backing from financial institutions including Bank of America and Deutsche Bank. Several developing-world governments pledged policy changes to encourage the industry.

The Alliance says it is ahead of schedule to reach its goal of 100 million households with clean cookstoves by 2020.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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