Clean(er) cooking in India: How solid fuels in rural Indian households contribute to climate crisis

Solid cooking fuel use makes up 13% of India’s national GHG emissions but is unaccounted in the national report

By Noble Varghese
Published: Thursday 28 September 2023
Representative photo: iStock

This article is the third in the series exploring why India needs clean cooking

Policymakers have been trying to tackle the clean cooking problem in India for several decades now. The first commercially viable biogas plant in India was adopted in 1959 by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which then became the first entity in India to be commissioned to build small biogas plants across the country. 

LPG, too, has had a long history in India as a clean cooking solution. It was first introduced in India way back in 1955 by Bharat Petroleum (BPCL), then known as Burmah Shell before it was nationalised due to energy security concerns arising out of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. 

Also read: Country should explore e-cooking but address these challenges before switching

Today, the Indian packaged LPG market is dominated by three national energy companies — BPCL, which sells under the brand name Bharatgas; Indian Oil, under the brand name Indane; and Hindustan Petroleum, under the brand name HP Gas. Of these, Indane holds approximately 50 per cent market share while the rest is equally split between the other two.

Despite seven decades of efforts to switch Indian kitchens to cleaner cooking fuels, around 500 million people, or 120 million households, still lack access to these fuels in India. They are forced to cook on some form of wood, biomass or kerosene every day, causing untold damage to their health, our environment and the country’s economy.

One of the significant but often misunderstood problems with the use of polluting cooking fuels is climate change. When over 120 million households in India burn these cooking fuels every day, twice, maybe thrice a day, it becomes a major contributor to CO2 emissions and an impediment to India achieving its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Also read: We need a transition to better solutions along with smarter policies

The author made some simple calculations to estimate the total CO2 emissions that India produces solely from burning wood for household cooking purposes.

The analysis is based on data from the National Sample Survey Office, National Family Health Survey, Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. The calculations were based on guidelines and emission factors from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2006 Guidelines For National GHG Inventories.

The author estimated the amount of wood use and, therefore, CO2 emissions from India’s polluting cooking fuel use. In 2016, India’s solid cooking fuel use contributed at least 340 million tonnes of CO2 to the national carbon budget, according to the calculations.

This translates to around 13 per cent of India’s national GHG emissions (including through land use, land-use change and forestry). What is even more surprising is that this is more than India’s transport sector emissions (at 10 per cent of national emissions) or the Industrial sector’s emissions (8 per cent).

Unfortunately, this significant chunk of national emissions is not accounted for in the Third National Biennial Report (BUR3) submitted to the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as part of the country’s climate pledges.

Source: Author’s Analysis based on government data

India’s BUR3 reports that residential sector emissions contribute around 7 per cent of national emissions or 180 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. This does not include burning wood or other biomass-based fuels for household cooking / heating purposes. If they are included, the figure rises 185 per cent to around 520 million tonnes per year at least. India’s total reported 2016 emissions would also go up by around 15 per cent to about 2,900 million tonnes from 2,530 million tonnes.

These estimates do not include CH4 and NO2 emissions from cooking use, which should be included in the final report submitted by nations, according to IPCC 2006 guidelines.

Inefficient biomass combustion also releases methane and nitrogen oxide, greenhouse gases (GHG) more potent than CO2. Moreover, traditional use of biomass also releases black carbon, commonly known as soot, a short‐lived aerosol with a global warming potential of 1,500 times that of CO2. It is estimated that 43 per cent of the global black carbon emissions are from household cooking / heating use alone.

The figure above shows the yearly change in India’s reported GHG emissions, and the percentage of CO2 emissions from unaccounted wood burning makes up the total emissions. For comparison, the reported GHG emissions from the transport sector have also been shown. 

This climate change impact isn’t solely the result of burning of wood for cooking. There is an additional strain on the environment due to the current methods of collecting fuelwood from forests, which heavily burdens natural assets.

Traditional use of biomass where wood is unsustainably gathered from chopping down trees in forest areas is over seven times more GHG intensive than if the biomass were sustainably harvested alongside conservation and replanting programmes.

Even though improved cookstoves have been distributed amongst many rural populations as part of clean cooking programmes by various entities in the past several years, none of these cookstoves completely cut out black carbon, CH4 or NO2 emissions.

In fact, they don’t even manage to bring the indoor air pollutant exposure levels to below WHO guidelines. Adopting better clean cooking programs, such as e-cooking solutions for rural India, will not only reduce India’s CO2 emissions but also reduce the avoided black carbon, CH4 & NO2 emissions. These cumulative emissions and green cover savings would make the positive climate impact even larger for India.

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