Spicing up the cooking challenge: 2.8 billion or 4 billion?

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In September 2020, ESMAP launched The State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services report, which estimates that 4 billion people around the world still lack access to clean, efficient, convenient, safe, reliable, and affordable cooking energy. Many people noticed that this access deficit figure differed from that of the 2020 Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report, which found that 2.8 billion people globally still cook with traditional polluting fuels and technologies. Given the slow progress toward universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern cooking energy—a key element for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7)—are we complicating this already daunting challenge? Let’s take a closer look at what each number means and the policy implications.

A Binary versus multi-tier approach to access measurement

Historically, access to cooking energy has often been equated with the use of nonsolid clean fuels versus solid, polluting fuels as the primary cooking energy source, a binary categorization. The SDG 7.1.2 indicator, access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking, has been measured using a proxy of whether households cook primarily with clean fuels, defined as electricity, LPG, natural gas, biogas, solar, and alcohol fuels. The 2.8 billion figure refers to the number of people who do not use these clean fuels as their primary cooking fuel. 

Figure 1. MTF attributes, showing tiered progress toward MECS access
Figure 1. MTF attributes, showing tiered progress toward MECS access

The State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services report introduces a broadened, contextual definition of access, termed Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS). It draws on the approach of the World Bank’s Multi-Tier Framework (MTF) for cooking, integrating holistic criteria on users’ needs and preferences into the measurement of access. The MTF includes six attributes:  exposure, efficiency, convenience, availability, safety, and affordability (Figure 1).

For each of these six attributes, a household is assigned a score. These six scores are aggregated into a single household score by assigning the lowest tier rating across the six attributes. A household context with a status of MTF Tier 2 or Tier 3 is considered in Transition with access to improved cooking services, while one that has met MTF Tier 4 or Tier 5 is considered to have MECS access. With these definitions and measurements, the report estimates that 4 billion people are without access to MECS. Of these, 1.25 billion are considered in Transition, while the remaining 2.75 billion still use the most rudimentary and polluting cooking practices.    

Clearly, the 2.8 billion and 4 billion figures are measuring different things. But why are we making access measurement more complex? Why does it matter?

Rethinking solutions by prioritizing user preferences and the local cooking context

Household cooking is a complex system encompassing a range of contextual factors and their interactions. The contextual factors comprise cooking technologies (stoves, fuels, pots and pans), user behavior (who cooks, for how long and how often, what foods are cooked, and how they are prepared), and the cooking environment (kitchen location, arrangement and size of rooms, construction materials, quality of ventilation, and other household energy services [e.g., lighting, space heating, and water heating]).

Among the contextual factors in the complex cooking system, users play the central role of making choices and interacting with other factors with the ultimate objective of transforming food ingredients into meals. Their priorities seldom focus on the cooking sector’s direct impacts on health, gender equality, and climate change. Even after users receive a clean cooking device, they may also continue using their traditional cookstove. This common practice, called “stacking,” may result from the need for extra burners for simultaneous cooking or additional functions. It suggests the need for putting users’ cooking preferences and experience front and center to enable a sustainable pathway to adopting cleaner stoves and fuels.

To succeed, solutions need to reflect local and country contexts and carefully evaluate the trade-offs of different approaches  to avoid ideological traps. For example, should country programs focus only on the highest tier, stove-plus-fuel combinations even if they are currently costly and difficult to disseminate to most households at large scale? Or should such programs include improved, low-cost stoves that may provide only marginal reductions in adverse health and environmental impacts but are likely to reach many households?

Having a comprehensive measurement of household cooking energy access through the MTF, which captures user preferences and local context, can inform national-level energy decision-making and the development of customized, sustainable solutions. For example, under the first Clean Cooking Fund co-financed Rwanda Energy Access and Quality Improvement Project, informed by the MTF data and the MECS framework, the cooking interventions are designed in such a way that the total amount of results-based cash incentives is linked to the cooking-technology performance levels and consumer income categories. Higher performance cooking technologies will be eligible for higher incentive amounts.

Poorer households can receive higher cash incentives to help bridge their affordability gap. The private sector is also incentivized to deliver affordable and sustainable improved and modern cooking solutions, including two-burner solutions, to address the stacking issue.  

Tackling the challenge

Whether the number is 2.8 billion or 4 billion, lack of access to clean cooking remains one of today’s biggest development challenges; the adverse impacts on health, gender equality, and climate alone are costing the world US$2.4 trillion each year. While the binary approach provides the first approximation of the challenge, the MTF data and the MECS framework enable us to better target policy interventions and advance user adoption. Building on the knowledge, financing, and partnerships, let’s work together to accelerate progress toward universal access to clean cooking.

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Yabei zhang

Senior Energy Specialist, World Bank

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