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Clean Cookstoves

Old fuel for a new future: the potential of wood energy

Paula Caballero's picture
A woman buying a clean cookstove in Tanzania. Klas Sander / World Bank

The use of wood energy – including firewood and charcoal – is largely considered an option of last resort. It evokes time-consuming wood collection, health hazards and small-scale fuel used by poor families in rural areas where there are no other energy alternatives.

And to a certain extent this picture is accurate. A study by the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves found that women in India spend the equivalent of two weeks every year collecting firewood, which they use to cook and heat their homes. Indoor air pollution caused by the smoke from burning firewood is known to lead to severe health problems: the WHO estimates 4.3 million deaths a year worldwide attributed to diseases associated with cooking and heating with solid fuels. Incomplete combustion creates short-lived climate pollutants, which also act as powerful agents of climate change.

But wood is a valuable source of energy for many of the 2.9 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean cooking facilities, including in major cities. It fuels many industries, from brickmaking and metal processing in the Congo Basin to steel and iron production in Brazil.  

In fact, the value of charcoal production in Africa was estimated at more than $8 billion in 2007, creating livelihoods for about seven million women and men, and catering to a rapidly growing urban demand. From this standpoint, wood energy makes up an enterprise of industrial scale. 

So, instead of disregarding wood energy as outdated, we must think of the economic, social and environmental benefits that would derive from modernizing its use. After all, wood energy is still one of the most widespread renewable fuels at our disposal. We already have the technological know-how to enhance the sustainability of wood energy value chains. Across the European Union’s 28 member states, wood and solid biofuels produced through “modern” methods accounted for nearly half of total primary energy from renewables in 2012.

Human wellbeing depends on a functioning planet—the Pope’s call

Paula Caballero's picture
Children in Bhutan look out on terraced fields. (Photo by Curt Carnemark / World Bank)The papal encyclical “on care for our common home” reflects the kind of insightful and decisive leadership that will be needed to reverse trends that will affect humanity’s capacity to feed itself and provide for collective well-being. The encyclical is not only a sobering call to address climate change, but also a manifesto for environmental stewardship and action. It touches on topics that we, as earth’s dominant species, need to urgently care about if we are to keep millions out of poverty today and tomorrow, and deliver on the rising expectations of a global middle class.

At the core of the encyclical is both a concern for the health of the planet and for the earth’s poor, reflected in a commitment to social values and integrity, environmental resilience, and economic inclusion.

The stock-taking begins, aptly, with pollution: “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” The World Bank’s latest edition of the Little Green Data Book finds indeed that in low and middle-income countries, 86% of the residents are exposed to air pollution levels (measured in exposure particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The WHO last year made headlines when it calculated that 7 million people had died prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012. From safer cookstoves in rural areas, to better air quality management in fast growing cities, this is an area where solutions are known and must be urgently applied.

Home is Where the Hearth Is

Anita Marangoly George's picture
Home is where the heart is. It’s also where the hearth is. And for the three billion people around the world who cook every day using traditional fuels, the hearth has a very dark side. Dirty, smoking cookstoves are responsible for killing over four million people a year. In fact, it is the fourth leading cause of death in the world. This was the message of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of numerous global leaders to highlight these alarming facts at the Cookstoves Future Summit in New York City last week.

She and leaders of governments, companies and organizations like the World Bank Group were gathered to pledge record amounts of finance and country-level actions to tackle the insidious health and environmental challenges posed by the simple act of cooking.
Photo by Romana Manpreet and Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Growing up in India, I have always been conscious of the daily grind that women and girls in remote, rural areas go through just to prepare one meal. There’s the long, arduous and sometimes dangerous walk to get firewood, sticks or charcoal – whatever one can afford to find or buy. There’s the walk home, loaded down with that fuel. This can take up to five hours in rural areas – time that could be spent at school, work or building a small enterprise. And then of course, there’s the time spent breathing in smoke as they cook an often simple meal of bread, rice, lentils or vegetables. In India alone, more than one million deaths a year are attributed to traditional cooking practices - a shocking figure by any reckoning.

Ashden Awards Shine Spotlight on Energy Innovations from Island States

S. Vijay Iyer's picture
D&E Green Enterprises: Saving Energy and the Forest in Haiti through Improved Cookstoves

If you live on an island in the ocean, energy and climate issues come together in a palpable way. Most small island developing states depend heavily on imported fossil fuels, especially diesel, for their power. For remote islands, in the Pacific for example, the fuel must be shipped over long distances. It’s expensive, the supply is limited and intermittent, and paying for it stretches government budgets. Because of this, low-income families and communities often rely instead on kerosene, and wood or other biomass for lighting and cooking.

Three Steps to Stop Kitchen Smoke from Killing More Women and Children

S. Vijay Iyer's picture

Photo Credit: Practical Action

I’m back from the 2013 Clean Cooking Forum in Phnom Penh, and impressed with the insights shared by practitioners and household fuel experts from around the world. It’s good to see clean cooking at the center of the global development agenda. But to live up to expectations, we’ll need to keep working hard.

Mobilizing a $100 Billion Market to Bring Clean Cooking Solutions to the Poor

S. Vijay Iyer's picture

Harmful fumes from a traditional outdoor wood stove, Lesotho

I’m on my way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the 2013 Clean Cooking Forum organized by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Consider this stunning fact:  household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels kills four million people each year. That’s the finding of the latest Global Burden of Disease study, published in December 2012.