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Cleaning up the health and environmental cost of cooking

Air pollution is the fourth leading fatal health risk worldwide and is estimated to cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labour income. Premature death from household air pollution attributed to cooking with open flame or inefficient cookstove, is estimated to cost the developing world US$123 billion annually. Clean, efficient cookstoves and fuels are an important development for improvement of both the environment.

According to a new World Bank report, about 87 percent of the world’s population live in countries in which ambient pollution levels exceed air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In low- and middle-income countries, it is even more pronounced: 90 percent of the population was exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution in 2013. Thus pollution control ought to be top of the agenda for most governments yet, in most countries, such expenditure competes with other budgetary priorities and policy objectives.

A collaboration between the World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington, Seattle, US, the report ‘The Cost of Air Pollution – Strengthening the Economic Case for Action’ seeks to demonstrate the “economic burden of pollution” to tilt the balance of policy decisions in favour of investments in clean air. Air pollution is the fourth leading fatal health risk worldwide and is attributed to an estimated 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013. This has cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labour income, or about US$5.11 trillion in welfare losses worldwide, roughly the gross domestic product (GDP) of India, Canada, and Mexico combined.

Cost of cooking

Whilst air pollution is especially severe in some of the world’s fastest-growing urban regions it is also a problem outside cities and the health risk posed is the greatest in developing countries. In 2013 about 93 percent of deaths and nonfatal illnesses attributed to air pollution worldwide occurred in these countries, where 90 percent of the population was exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels are an important development for improvement of both the environment and public health. The use of such cookstoves leads to better combustion of fuel and improved heat transfer leading to reduction in fuel demand, improved health of women and children and lower costs of cooking

According to a report ‘Five Years of Impact 2010-2015’ by Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), a public-private partnership hosted by the United Nations (UN) Foundation, close to 3 billion people still cook using an open flame or an inefficient cookstove relying on traditional solid fuels such as firewood, charcoal, coal or animal dung. An estimated 4.3 million people die prematurely every year from illnesses attributed to household air pollution as a result of these cooking conditions. This is pegged to cost the developing world US$123 billion in annual costs to related to health,  environment, labour loss and welfare.

Biomass cooking technology, mix by region (illustration courtesy GACC).

Biomass cooking technology, mix by region (illustration courtesy GACC).

Adopting cleaner cookstoves

According to the GACC the lack of access to clean cookstoves and fuels for cooking is especially acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, with a third of the urban population and the vast majority of the rural poor using such methods. The rate of solid fuel usage, especially in rural areas, is 80 to 90 percent, and the number is expected to rise as population growth outpaces economic development. With over 1 500 partners the GACC has a goal to have 100 million households adopt clean, efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020 noting that even where there is access to electricity or bottled gas, primarily in urban areas, the use of solid fuels for cooking persists due to cost and cultural factors.

The World Bioenergy Association (WBA) highlights that a lack of capital and the lack of an integrated strategy to solve the cooking issue are hindering the development of improved cookstoves and fuels. Its recently released ‘Clean and efficient bioenergy cookstoves’ fact sheet details renewable fuel resources and associated stove technologies focusing on solid, liquid and gaseous fuel based cookstoves along with solar based cookstoves as well as solar/biomass hybrid solutions.

The topic of clean and efficient cookstoves has been on the burner for many decades. Various organisations have tried to transfer and implement cookstove technology from developed to developing nations. Some are still trying. However, there is a basic lack of knowledge about the sector and where we stand now. This fact sheet tries to clarify the position of the cookstoves sector now and is important tool for researchers, companies and policy makers, said Remigijus Lapinskas, President, WBA.

Lapinskas pointed out that to solve the cookstoves challenge, a systems approach is needed. This includes efficient forest management,  the use of organic wastes for energy production and proper information dissemination to replace traditional fuels with modern fuels and solutions.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 5-2016. Note that as a magazine subscriber you get access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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