Cook stoves: the politics and the quest for solutions

What should be the approach to deal with local health impacts of cooking fuels that would also inform India's national and global policy?

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 12 March 2015

imageThe politics of particles: Luxury vs survival

Chulhas – cookstoves of poor women who collect sticks, twigs and leaves to cook meals – are today at the centre of failing international action. Women are breathing toxic emissions from stoves and these emissions are also adding to the climate change burden of the world. The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Report established that indoor air pollution from cookstoves is a primary cause of disease and death in South Asia. As many as 1.04 million pre-mature deaths and 31.4 million disability adjusted life years (DALYs) – measure of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death – are related to exposure to biomass burning in poorly ventilated homes.

But what has spurred action is the science that there is a connection between local air and global air pollution. The particles formed during incomplete combustion – in diesel cars and cookstoves – are seen to be powerful “climate forcers” because they absorb light and convert it into heat. It is also found that these particles or aerosols interact with clouds and affect rain patterns. They also fall on snow or ice surfaces and make them melt faster.

Moreover, particulate matter or black carbon is short-lived. Its life span in the atmosphere is three to eight days, unlike carbon dioxide, which has a life span of 80 to 100 years. So, combating emissions brings quick results to an increasingly over-heated Planet, even though their impacts are more regional and local. The current negotiations on climate change are focused on these shortlived climate forcers (SLCF) as a way ahead.

This is not to say that science is completely agreed on the matter of how serious is the contribution of particulate or black carbon to global climate change. This is because there are good aerosols which cool the Planet because they reflect light, and bad aerosols that warm the Planet.

But what is emerging is that the good or bad could well depend on the source of pollution. While open burning or biomass burnt in cookstoves produces particles with a higher proportion of organic carbon that scatters sunlight, emissions from fossil fuels have a higher proportion of black carbon, which absorbs light and forces heating. Seen this way, use of low-sulfur diesel has the highest net positive radiative forcing – it warms, not cools.

Politics of particles, therefore, differentiates between survival emissions from the cookstoves of the poor and the luxury emissions of SUVs of the rich.

Unchanging scale and size: The world’s wicked problem

The fact is, however, that though many countries like India (and parts of China and Africa) may have modernised, the bulk of cooking in villages is still done using firewood and twigs.

Globally, it is estimated that 2.67 billion people still rely on biomass for cooking food, with 80 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa and 66 per cent of Indians using this inefficient and polluting fuel.1 This adds up to roughly half the developing world and 40 per cent of the world. Even in 2030, the World Energy Outlook report estimates that 43 per cent of the developing world (33 per cent of the world’s people) will continue to cook on biomass. Even in fast growing China where 33 per cent use biomass, it is estimated that by 2030, 19 per cent will continue on this fuel. The report also points out that “there is evidence that where local prices have adjusted to recent international energy prices, the shift to cleaner, more efficient use of energy for cooking has actually slowed down or even reversed”.


In India, Census 2011 shows that 75 per cent of rural households continue to use biomass and dung to cook, as against 21 per cent of urban Indian households. In addition, data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) on energy sources of Indian households for cooking and lighting reveals that nothing has changed in the past two decades. In 1993-94, as many as 78 per cent households in rural India used biomass as cooking fuel and in 2009-10, 76 per cent used this fuel.

Therefore, in this period, when urban India moved to LPG (from 30 per cent to 64 per cent), rural India remained where it was, cooking on highly inefficient and dirty stoves (see Graph: Energy sources of Indian households). There is a definite correlation between wealth, availability and methods of cooking. The same NSSO data shows that only in the highest (9th and 10th) class of monthly per capita expenditure does the household make the transition to LPG in rural India. In urban India, in contrast, even households in the lower level of monthly per capita expenditure use LPG. This is because LPG is subsidised and more available in urban areas.

Therefore, it is poverty that is at the root of the chulha conundrum. This is where the climate change knots get entangled.

The fact is that LPG is a fossil fuel available in large parts of the world as a clean cooking medium. Advocating use of this fuel to meet the needs of poor women in vast parts of the world will only add to greenhouse gas emissions. The other problem is that any programme to reach the poor will necessarily require subsidy. The world frowns on subsidy for fossil fuel – which is partly why governments across the world are scrambling to remove subsidy from kerosene and even LPG. So, what is the way ahead?

Where has the firewood crisis gone?

In the 1970s-1980s it was widely said that the ‘other energy crisis’ is firewood for cooking as supply was short and women had to spend hours to walk for collecting this basic need. It was also said that this use of energy by the very poorest would devastate forests. In 1973, after the first oil shock, the government of India set up the Fuel Policy Committee, which noted that the widespread use of noncommercial sources of energy has led to “large-scale denudation and destruction of forests.” But there is little evidence that this has happened. Why?

Anil Agarwal, CSE’s founder, was always fascinated by household requirements for cooking energy – in the early 1980s he organised the country’s first conference on this issue. Writing in the First Citizens Report in 1982, he warned of an impending firewood crisis as demand would outstrip supply. But he also said that there was little evidence to suggest “energy-gathering families of India were responsible for deforestation as then all trees should have disappeared by now.” The problem was not the energy needs of the poor, collected most often by women and children, as this depended on twigs and branches. The “biggest threat to forests is because of commercialisation of firewood – growing use in urban areas.”2 Anil Agarwal asked this question once again in the late 1990s and found his earlier assessment was confirmed by developments over the two decades. By then, there was no apparent firewood crisis – this, when all evidence suggested that biomass use for cooking continued across the country. He analysed data from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), which showed that the firewood demand in urban areas had gone down, because of the switchover to commercial fuels like LPG and kerosene. At this time, subsidies made these two fuels cheaper than even firewood for urban areas, where they were available.

The NCAER survey, published in 1995 – ironically, the last such countrywide assessment of cooking fuel consumption – compared its data with the previous survey done in 1978- 79. It found the following:

  1. In 1992-93, total household energy consumption in rural India was 153.4 million tonne of coal replacement (mtcr) – coal replacement being the amount of firewood converted into the amount of coal that would be needed to replace one tonne of firewood. But of this, 30 per cent came from firewood twigs and another 32 per cent from firewood logs.
  2. The share of cowdung and crop residue in the household energy basket had gone down in these two decades, but the total quantity had increased.
  3. The total firewood – twigs and logs – used for household energy consumption was 130 million tonne, with a greater share coming from more superior quality woodfuel logs, and not leaves or twigs. But interestingly, even though the share of logs had increased, people were buying less. Therefore, they were finding better quality wood to burn in cookstoves, which could be collected.
  4. But this better quality log was not coming from forests. The survey found that between the two decades, the percentage of households collecting firewood from forests had halved. Instead, firewood was coming from farms and other lands.

Analysing data from other studies Anil Agarwal found that the other firewood crisis had been averted because people had gone in for tree plantation on private land and the use of exotic ‘weed’ trees like Prosopis juliflora. People were not dependent on forests for firewood need and therefore, large-scale forest destruction (as predicted in the 1970s and 1980s) had not happened. The 2011 State of Forest Report, published by the Forest Survey of India, corroborates this.

It estimates that in 2010 the total fuelwood used was 216 million tonne, but of this only 60 million tonne – or 27 per cent – came from forests. The rest came from private lands or wastelands.

“All this evidence points that people have averted the ecological crisis through a rational response of community and individual action. But very little is studied or understood of what people have done and at what cost,” Anil Agarwal wrote in 1999.3 Since then even fewer studies have been done on the firewood demand for household energy use. But what is emerging from the scattered and limited studies is that in many parts of the country (perhaps also the developing world) people make rational and careful choices of multiple sources of cooking energy fuel. They use a combination of biomass, expensive and often unavailable LPG and even kerosene to cook depending on the food type and cost involved.

But unfortunately, energy experts discount these noncommercial sources. So, little is known of their use and little can be then understood about the policy options that would work for this half of the world’s people.

Strategy 1: Move to cleaner cooking devices…

The action on improved cookstoves is not new. About 24 years ago, I was in a house in a small village some distance from Udaipur town in Rajasthan. A government functionary was explaining how an improved cookstove worked – they had installed it in the kitchen. At that time, India was waking up to forests being devastated. It was believed then (wrongly, as it turned out) the key reason was poor people cutting trees to cook food. It was also being understood that smoke from stoves was carcinogenic and that women were worst hit by this pollution. The answer was to design improved chulhas – for better combustion and with a chimney.

The woman owner of this improved stove was cooking the day’s meal. I asked if she was happy with what science and government had donated to her. Her answer was simple: “Looks good, does not work. I modified it.” Her problem was that, in this area, women cooked gruel on big utensils. Her homemade original stove was fitted to her diet and her utensils. The improved chulha, with its small opening to streamline the fire, was of little use. When the chulha was designed, nobody asked her what she needed. Nobody explained to her the laws of thermodynamics, so that she could fathom why the stove looked and worked as it did. And nobody was there who could repair or reshape her cookstove. She had simply broken the opening to fit her needs. Carefully calculated combustion in the laboratory of the local university and delivered through a government programme had turned to hot air.

I learnt my most valuable lesson that day. Designing technologies for diversity and affordability is much more complex than sending a man to the moon.

Consider these statistics. The National Programme on Improved Cookstoves (NPIC) was started way back in 1985. Its objective was to provide one improved cookstove at a subsidised price to every rural household. By 1994, some 15 million improved chulhas were introduced across the country and by 2003 this number grew to 35 million. In 2004, this programme was closed down.

Surveys have pointed out to the problems in this cookstove introduction. The 1995-96 survey – the last comprehensive one – done by the Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research found that while 60 per cent of the stoves were in use there were many problems. In many cases, the stoves were not appropriately designed or had broken with use. Over 62 per cent of the respondents said they did not know whom to contact for repairs. No surprise there. Technology deployment in poor and unserviced households is a job the market does badly.

Globally as well, the experience is more or less the same. China has the distinction of having the world’s most successful improved cookstove programme – 180 million such devices distributed. But it is also a fact that the Chinese programme is reflective of the growing incomes in the country and availability of commercial fuels. In 2010, the Chinese private sector was producing 2.3 million clean heating coal stoves and over 600,000 clean biomass stoves. This private sector intervention has not worked so successfully in other countries, where poverty drives down demand for commercial approaches.

Private sector’s clean cooking devices

In 2014, the WHO set guidelines for indoor air quality: household fuel combustion. These, for the first time, mandate the emissions that would be acceptable from household devices. The guideline value for exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is 10 microgram/m3 (annual mean). WHO also provides three interim targets – 35-25-15 microgram/m3 (annual mean) for PM2.5 to gradually reduce health risks. Commercial stove manufacturers are still far from meeting these clean air guidelines for devices that need to be cost-effective and easy to disseminate and use.

In October 2014, a study published in the journal Eco-Health4 by a group of scientists in India and the US looked at some advanced cookstoves for their ability to improve air quality in communities where they are used. The study was unique since not only did it measure the level of pollutants in the houses where the advanced cookstoves were used, but also surveyed extensively to assess the acceptability of these stoves in the community and identified the challenges faced by their real users.5 Six commercially available models of cookstoves were selected for the study – three models of natural draftrocket stoves (Envirofit-B1200, Envirofit-G3300 and Prakti-Leo), a natural draft micro-gasifier stove (Philips- Natural Draft) and two models of forced draft micro gasifier stoves (Philips-HD4012-Forced Draft and Oorja).

The stoves were distributed in seven villages in three districts of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh between May 2010 and December 2011. The study was conducted in three phases. In Phase I, baseline measurements of pollutants over a period of 24 hours in the kitchen were made, when chulhas were in use. Phases II and III were conducted one month and six months after the test stoves were installed.

Of the six stoves that were studied, none came close to meeting air pollution guidelines prescribed by the WHO. The stoves did not even meet interim standards. Using advanced stoves reduced the requirement of fuel by 30-40 per cent but the time spent near the stove remained either unchanged or increased in comparison to traditional stoves. The rocket stoves allowed charging the stove with the required quantity of fuel for a full meal, whereas the Philips and Oorja stoves required recharging within a single meal period. This resulted in spending more time close to the stove, adding to the pollution burden.

Surprisingly, the stoves with best impact on air quality were the ones least customised for usage in rural settings. For example, the Philips-HD 4012 Forced Draft stove was the only one to show statistically significant reduction in PM2.5 (62.7 per cent) and CO (78 per cent) but was very cumbersome to use. Clearly, user requirements were not understood well enough before designing the stoves. Speaking to Down To Earth, lead researcher for this study, Kalpana Balakrishnan who has worked for years on the issue of cookstove pollution, explained: “The problem lies not just in the stoves but also in solid fuels themselves, that burn very inefficiently. Our technological know-how does not allow us to build a stove in the Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 bracket that burns fuel efficiently enough to match WHO standards. In trying for greater efficiency, the costs often shoot up. Till a breakthrough in clean technology occurs, the need of the hour is to move to cleaner fuels like LPG and electricity.”

…or is the answer clean energy access?

The first option is to improve the biomass-based cooking device – make it more efficient and less polluting. The second option is to the change the fuel itself. It is a fact that transition away from dirty cooking fuel has huge health benefits and must be supported with subsidy. If LPG is subsidised and made available to urban populations, then the same should be done for rural populations. If we want benefits for health and climate, then the option would be to increase subsidy for cleaner electricity, from biomass gasification to solar energy. But let’s face the fact: these are not cheap options. That is the inconvenient truth.

At the global level, there is no reason to argue nothing should be done to improve and substitute the polluting and noxious cooking stoves of the poorest. The problem is not in the intent. The problem is in the ‘why’ and the ‘what needs to be done’. Today, the international community sees improvement in these cooking energy devices as an easy solution. We believe here’s a quick and simple climate fix, which will create space for cars and power stations so that we can continue to pollute. Also, the international community is today equating this ‘survival’ emission – of poor people with no alternative but to walk long distances to collect firewood, sweep the forest floor for leaves and twigs and do backbreaking work to collect and dry cowdung, all for some ‘oil’ to cook their food – with the ‘luxury’ emissions of you and I, who drive to work and live in airconditioned comfort.

This distinction is necessary. For policy and action. Otherwise, an important opportunity – provided to us by the poorest in the world – to reduce emissions in the future would be lost.

We know that even today, the share of new renewables – solar, wind, geothermal and cogeneration – make up a small part of the world’s primary energy supply. The bulk of what is defined as renewable comes from biomass burning, from the very stoves of poor families. It is these families, living on the margins of survival, already vulnerable to climate change impacts, which are in the renewable energy net. They are not the problem. They are the solution to our excesses.

The energy trajectory is such that these families, when they move out of poverty, will also move out of cooking on this biomass stove. They will walk up the fossil fuel stairway to LPG. Every time they move away, as they must, one less family will be using renewable energy; one more, like you and me, will begin polluting with long-life greenhouse gas emissions. The difference is black soot pollutes locally – it literally kills the women who cook – but has a relatively short life in the atmosphere. So, unlike carbon dioxide, it disappears in a few weeks. But when we cook on LPG we emit carbon dioxide that stays in the atmosphere and creates the problem of climate change.

The poorest, therefore, provide the world the perfect opportunity to leapfrog – they can move from using renewable energy, currently polluting, to using more renewable energy, but which is clean for them and the world. It is this objective that must drive our efforts, not a plan to pick on the poorest so we can continue to pollute. What is clear also is that this is not easy. We need cooking devices that can be sold, distributed and used in millions of diverse households across the world. Or we need to find approaches that move beyond the individual devices that can move the poorest of the world – so poor that they cannot afford the cheapest monetised energy sources – to clean sources of cooking fuel.

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