Time to Clear the Smoke

June, 2011
The Great Energy Challenge
In many parts of the world, a picture of a woman sitting in front of a smoky cookstove preparing a family meal remains an iconic picture of life today. For many families, the three- stone fire or a traditional stove as a cooking device has not changed over centuries. This need not be the case, and in a growing number of nations, that traditional pattern is changing.

Serious research on improved cookstoves dates back to the 1950s. However, large-scale field programs focused largely on the inefficiency of designs. While the stoves may appear simple, the socio-cultural systems in which they operate, and their impacts on so many aspects of household and regional health and economics, is far from simple. Many approaches have been tried, with some successes and many failures.

Over the last few years, a more complete view of the full human and environmental health impacts of indoor air pollution and the global impact of the fuel and stove cycle has emerged. Poorly managed fuel systems encourage use of unsustainably harvested fuel such as charcoal produced from illegal and ecologically damaging informal production network.

The World Bank is looking at opportunities to improve not only cookstoves themselves, but also the full stove fuel cycle as a way to address energy poverty, human health, and the global greenhouse gas problem. I was delighted to see a new publication that looks at this nexus between health, environment and GHG benefits called Household Cookstoves, Environment, Health, and Climate Change: A New Look at an Old Problem (PDF file). This report takes stock of existing knowledge on the subject and points out new opportunities by identifying ‘game-changers’ in the stove technology and fuels.

This research and a call to action is timely as a promising new partnership has emerged around a global effort chaired by the United Nations Foundation, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. This $100 million partnership is a recognition of the potential impact of globally coordinated approach and knowledge sharing around cookstoves. The World Bank has joined the alliance through the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) that now has a dedicated team focused on household energy issues.

As I say in the preface to the report, in the 1980s the World Bank maintained a household energy program which included a focus on clean cooking. However, the interest in household energy dissipated in the 1990s as the focus shifted towards electrification. In the last few years reports from within the World Bank and from the growing network of researchers and practitioners that includes the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Energy agency (IEA), and academic and civil society partners on many aspects of stoves has again increased. While debate continues on a number of specific aspects of stove and fuel impacts and approaches, broad agreement exists on the need to partner globally and on the extent of the problem and the opportunity.

As the link with both health and climate change becomes clearer (Bailis, Ezzait, Kammen, 2005), the good news is that new sources and mechanisms for financing linked to climate change will become available. Carbon offset credits are starting to be awarded for cookstove programs, and entrepreneurs seeking new opportunities to sell stoves are looking to government attention on energy efficiency and climate forcing as a way to fund stove dissemination.

As a researcher with a long personal memory and engagement on cookstove projects and programs (Kammen and Lankford, 1990), I am clearly excited about the report. I have seen in field campaigns that I have managed how large the health impacts can be, and how scaling-up stove and fuel programs can provide a transformative tool for sustainable development (Bailis, Ezzati, and Kammen, 2005).

The evidence is mounting and this may be remembered as the time when the cookstove became cleaner – both for the health of the women in these pictures and the earth in general.