Energy poverty and cooking

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a 3-stone stove
A traditional wood-fired 3-stone stove in Guatemala, which causes indoor air pollution

One aspect of energy poverty is lack of access to clean, modern fuels and technologies for cooking. As of 2020, more than 2.6 billion people in developing countries routinely cook with fuels such as wood, animal dung, coal, or kerosene. Burning these types of fuels in open fires or traditional stoves causes harmful household air pollution, resulting in an estimated 3.8 million deaths annually according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and contributes to various health, socio-economic, and environmental problems.

A high priority in global sustainable development is to make clean cooking facilities universally available and affordable. Cooking facilities are considered "clean" if their emissions of carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter are below certain levels as defined by the WHO.

Stoves and appliances that run on electricity, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), piped natural gas (PNG), biogas, alcohol, and solar heat are considered to be clean. Improved cook stoves that burn biomass more efficiently than traditional stoves are an important interim solution in areas where deploying cleaner technologies is less feasible. Universal access to clean cooking facilities would have large benefits for environmental protection and for gender equality.

Issues with traditional cooking fuels[edit]

As of 2020, more than 2.6 billion people[1] in developing countries rely on burning polluting biomass fuels such as wood, dry dung, coal, or kerosene for cooking, which causes harmful household air pollution and also contributes significantly to outdoor air pollution.[2] The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that cooking-related pollution causes 3.8 million annual deaths.[3] The Global Burden of Disease study estimated the number of deaths in 2017 at 1.6 million.[4]

Solid fuel smoke contains thousands of substances, many of which are hazardous to human health. The most well understood of these substances are carbon monoxide (CO); small particulate matter; nitrous oxide; sulfur oxides; a range of volatile organic compounds, including formaldehyde, benzene and 1,3-butadiene; and polycyclic aromatic compounds, such as benzo-a-pyrene, which are thought to have both short and long term health consequences.[5]

Exposure to household air pollution (HAP) nearly doubles the risk of childhood pneumonia and is responsible for 45 percent of all pneumonia deaths in children under five years of age. Emerging evidence shows that HAP is also a risk factor for cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in lower-middle-income countries, and low birth weight.[6] Cooking with open fires or unsafe stoves is a leading cause of burns among women and children in developing countries.[7]

Health effects are concentrated among women, who are likely to be responsible for cooking, and young children.[2] The work of gathering fuel exposes women and children to safety risks and often consumes 15 or more hours per week, constraining their available time for education, rest, and paid work.[2] Women and girls must often walk long distances to obtain cooking fuel, and, as a result, face increased risk of physical and sexual violence.[8] Many children, particularly girls, may not attend school in order to help their mothers with firewood collection and food preparation.[8] Serious local environmental damage, including desertification, can be caused by excessive harvesting of wood and other combustible material.[9]

Traditional cooking facilities[edit]

The traditional method of cooking is on a three-stone cooking fire or on a mud stove. The three-stone fire is the cheapest stove to produce, requiring only three suitable stones of the same height on which a cooking pot can be balanced over a fire. Smoke is vented into the home rather than out through a chimney.

Traditional cooking facilities allow heat to escape into the open air, which wastes fuel. The use of an open fire creates a risk of burns and scalds. Particularly when the stove is used indoors, cramped conditions make adults and particularly children susceptible to falling or stepping into the fire and receiving burns. Additionally, accidental spills of boiling water may result in scalding, and blowing on the fire to supply oxygen may discharge burning embers and cause eye injuries.

Clean cooking facilities[edit]

Solar cookers are nonpolluting and free to use, but require favourable weather and longer cooking times.[10]

A high priority in global sustainable development is to make clean cooking facilities universally available and affordable.[11] According to the World Health Organization, cooking facilities are considered "clean" if their emissions of carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter are below certain levels.[12]

Stoves and appliances that are powered by electricity, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), piped natural gas (PNG), biogas, alcohol, and solar heat are clean.[10] Best-in-class fan gasifier stoves that burn biomass pellets can be classified as clean cooking facilities if they are correctly operated and the pellets have sufficiently low levels of moisture, but these stoves are not widely available.[13] As of 2016, no widely-available biomass stoves meet recommended emissions limits for indoor household use.[14]

Electricity can be used to power appliances such as rice cookers and highly efficient induction stoves, in addition to standard electric stoves. Electric induction stoves are so efficient that they create less pollution than liquified petroleum gas (LPG) even when connected to coal power sources, and are sometimes cheaper.[15] As of 2019, 770 million people do not have access to electricity,[16] and for many others electricity is not affordable or reliable.

Biogas digesters convert waste, such as human waste and animal dung, into a methane-rich gas that burns cleanly. Biogas systems are a promising technology in areas where each household has at least two large animals to provide dung, and a steady supply of water is also available.[17]

Solar cookers collect and concentrate the sun's heat when sunshine is available.[10]

Improved cook stoves[edit]

Improved cook stoves, such as the ones shown here, burn biomass relatively efficiently but usually still emit toxic levels of pollutants.

Improved cook stoves (ICS) are typically more fuel-efficient than traditional stoves, and can be deployed as an interim step towards clean cooking.[18] As of 2009, less than 30% of people who cook with some sort of biomass stove use ICS.[19]

The efficiency improvements of ICS do not necessarily translate into meaningful reductions in health risks[20] because for certain conditions, such as childhood pneumonia, the relationship between pollution levels and effects on the body has been shown to be non-linear. This means, for example, that a 50 percent reduction in exposure would not halve the health risk.[13] A 2020 systematic review found that ICS usage led to modest improvements in terms of blood pressure, shortness of breath, emissions of cancer-causing substances, and cardiovascular diseases, but no improvements in pregnancy outcomes or children's health.[21]

The World Health Organization encourages further research to develop biomass stove technology that is low-emission, affordable, durable, and meets users' needs.[14]

Non-technological interventions[edit]

Behavioral change interventions, in reducing childhood household exposures, have the potential to reduce household air pollution exposure by 20 to 98%. Indoor Air Pollution (IAP) exposure can be greatly reduced by cooking outdoors, reducing time spent in the cooking area, keeping the kitchen door open while cooking, avoid leaning over the fire while attending to the  meal preparation, staying away while carrying children when cooking and keeping the children away from the cooking area. Negative impacts can also be reduced by changes to the environment (e.g. use of a chimney), drying fuel wood before use, and using a lid during cooking.[22]

Opportunities to educate communities on reducing household indoor air pollution exposure include festival collaborations, religious meetings, and medical outreach clinics. Community health workers represent a significant resource for educating communities to help raise awareness regarding reducing the effects of indoor air pollution.[23]


Many users of clean stoves and fuels continue to make frequent use of traditional fuels and stoves, a phenomenon known as "fuel stacking" or "stove stacking".[24] For instance, a recent study in Kenya found that households that are primary LPG users consume 42 percent as much charcoal as households that are primary charcoal users.[24] When stacking is practiced, the introduction of clean cooking facilities may not reduce household air pollution enough to make a meaningful difference in health outcomes.[10] There are many reasons to continue to use traditional fuels and stoves, such as unreliable fuel supply, the cost of fuel, the ability of stoves to accommodate different types of pots and cooking techniques, and the need to travel long distances to repair stoves.[10]

Efforts to improve access to clean cooking fuels and stoves have barely kept up with population growth, and current and planned policies would still leave 2.4 billion people without access in 2030.[1]

Environmental and sustainable development effects[edit]

Woman baking bread on an electric stove
A woman cooks with electricity, a clean energy source, in Ethiopia

Transitioning to cleaner cooking methods is expected to either slightly raise greenhouse gas emissions or decrease emissions, even if the replacement fuels are fossil fuels. There is evidence that switching to LPG and PNG has a smaller climate effect than the combustion of solid fuels, which emits methane and black carbon.[25] The burning of residential solid fuels accounts for up to 58 percent of global black carbon emissions.[26] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2018, "The costs of achieving nearly universal access to electricity and clean fuels for cooking and heating are projected to be between 72 and 95 billion USD per year until 2030 with minimal effects on GHG emissions."[27]

Universal access to clean cooking is an element of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, whose first target is to: "By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services".[28] Progress in clean cooking would facilitate progress in other Sustainable Development goals, such as eliminating poverty (Goal 1), good health and well-being (Goal 3), gender equality (Goal 5), and climate action (Goal 13).[29]

SDG 7 specifies Indicator 7.1.2 as: "Proportion of population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technology".[28] - The indicator is calculated as the number of people using clean fuels and technologies for cooking, heating and lighting divided by total population reporting that any cooking, heating or lighting, expressed as a percentage.[30] "Clean fuel" in this context is defined by the emission rate targets and specific fuel recommendations (i.e. against unprocessed coal and kerosene) included in the normative guidance WHO guidelines for indoor air quality.[30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Access to clean cooking – SDG7: Data and Projections – Analysis". IEA. October 2020. Retrieved 2021-03-31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 World Health Organization 2016, pp. VII–XIV.
  3. "Household air pollution and health: fact sheet". WHO. 8 May 2018. Retrieved 2020-11-21.
  4. Ritchie, Hannah; Roser, Max (2019). "Access to Energy". Our World in Data. Retrieved 1 April 2021. According to the Global Burden of Disease study 1.6 million people died prematurely in 2017 as a result of indoor air pollution ... But it's worth noting that the WHO publishes a substantially larger number of indoor air pollution deaths..
  5. Peabody, J. W., Riddell, T. J., Smith, K. R., Liu, Y., Zhao, Y., Gong, J., ... & Sinton, J. E. (2005). Indoor air pollution in rural China: cooking fuels, stoves, and health status. Archives of environmental & occupational health, 60(2), 86-95.
  6. ESMAP 2020, p. 17.
  7. "Burns". World Health Organization. September 2016. Archived from the original on 21 July 2017. Retrieved 1 August 2017.
  8. 8.0 8.1 ESMAP 2020, p. 20.
  9. Tester 2012, p. 504.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 World Health Organization 2016, pp. 25–29.
  11. United Nations (2018). "Accelerating SDG 7 Achievement Policy Brief 02: Achieving Universal Access to Clean and Modern Cooking Fuels, Technologies and Services" (PDF). Retrieved April 5, 2021.
  12. World Health Organization 2016, p. 11.
  13. 13.0 13.1 ESMAP 2020, p. 19.
  14. 14.0 14.1 World Health Organization 2016, p. 88.
  15. Nugent R Mock CN (Kobusingye O, et al., editors) (2017). "Chapter 7 Household Air Pollution from Solid Cookfuels and Its Effects on Health". Injury Prevention and Environmental Health. 3rd Edition. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. "Access to electricity – SDG7: Data and Projections – Analysis". IEA. Retrieved 2021-05-05.
  17. Nugent, R; Mock, C.N. (2017). "Chapter 7 Household Air Pollution from Solid Cookfuels and Its Effects on Health". In Kobusingye, O.; et al. (eds.). Injury Prevention and Environmental Health. 3rd Edition. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. Archived from the original on 13 April 2021. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  18. World Health Organization 2016, p. 12.
  19. Shankar, Anita; Johnson, Michael; Kay, Ethan; Pannu, Raj; Beltramo, Theresa; Derby, Elisa; Harrell, Stephen; Davis, Curt; Petach, Helen (2014-07-22). "Maximizing the benefits of improved cookstoves: moving from acquisition to correct and consistent use". Global Health: Science and Practice. 2 (3): 268–274. doi:10.9745/GHSP-D-14-00060. ISSN 2169-575X. PMC 4168629. PMID 25276586.
  20. World Health Organization 2016, pp. 11–12.
  21. Pratiti, Rebecca; Vadala, David; Kalynych, Zirka; Sud, Parul (April 28, 2020). "Health effects of household air pollution related to biomass cook stoves in resource limited countries and its mitigation by improved cookstoves". Environmental Research. 186: 109574. Bibcode:2020ER....186j9574P. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.109574. ISSN 1096-0953. PMID 32668541. S2CID 219033298.
  22. Indoor air pollution and health - World Health Organization fact sheet.
  23. Amegah, A. K., & Jaakkola, J. J. (2016). Household air pollution and the sustainable development goals. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 94(3), 215.
  24. 24.0 24.1 ESMAP 2020, p. 42.
  25. World Health Organization 2016, p. 75.
  26. ESMAP 2020, p. 22.
  27. IPCC SR15 Ch5 2018, SPM.5.1.
  28. 28.0 28.1 United Nations (2017) Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 6 July 2017, Work of the Statistical Commission pertaining to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/RES/71/313)
  29. United Nations (2018). "Accelerating SDG 7 Achievement Policy Brief 02: Achieving Universal Access to Clean and Modern Cooking Fuels, Technologies and Services" (PDF). Retrieved April 5, 2021.
  30. 30.0 30.1 UN Statistics (2016) Goal 7 Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (Updated on 30 March 2016)
  31. WHO (2014) WHO indoor air quality guidelines: household fuel combustion, World Health Organization, Geneva.

Book sources[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Energypedia - collaborative knowledge exchange on renewable energy, energy access, and energy efficiency topics in developing countries
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