Improved Cookstoves: A Solution to Indoor Air Pollution

More than 4.3 million people die prematurely from indoor air pollution each year, most of whom live in the developing world where open fires are used as a primary source of energy. Open indoor fires pose a serious threat to human health and the environment. When wood or other traditional fuel sources are burned, dangerous forms of particulate matter are released into the atmosphere (think ash and soot). Of these pollutants, none is more harmful than black carbon.

What is Black Carbon and Why is it Dangerous?

Black carbon is a form of particulate matter that is released through the incomplete combustion of fuels. It is the second largest man-made contributor to climate change and poses an incredible health risk to many women and children in the developing world. The World Health Organization has included black carbon in its list of major risk factors to human health, ranking it higher than unsafe water and outdoor air pollution. Environmentally, black carbon has been shown to exacerbate the impacts of climate change. In Asia, black carbon contributes greatly to glacial retreat in the Hindu-Kush Himalaya region. Receding glaciers and melting snowpack in this region severely threatens the food and water security for 1.3 billion people.

What is an Improved Cookstove?

Improving cooking methods in the developing world can alleviate many of the adverse health and environmental related impacts of black carbon. Improved cookstoves hold the potential to significantly lower the number indoor air pollution-related deaths. Improved cookstoves can be designed and built in a variety of ways depending on what will serve the local conditions best. In their simplest form, improved cookstoves enclose the fire to reduce the loss of heat and contain pollutants. Some low-carbon variations are able to run on more advanced fuel sources, like propane and solar energy. These stoves can also cut back on the time women and children must spend collecting firewood, giving them more time to pursue activities such as education and employment.

Why Aren’t More People Using Improved Cookstoves?

Improved cookstoves are central to development. However, many families in the developing world elect not to use them. More advanced fuels – like propane and solar – are often more expensive than wood and animal wastes. As such, many cookstoves have a low rate of adoption, especially in poor and rural areas. If governments or international development agencies want to increase adoption rates, they might consider providing more financial assistance through improved credit access, microfinance, or subsidies. They also may want to pay greater attention to local factors such as culture and the status of women. Some cookstoves do not allow users to cook culturally significant food and in many parts of the developing world, women have little bargaining power in household decision making.

Clean cooking initiatives offer a creative solution to addressing many targets found in the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 7 (SDG7) seeks to provide affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to all. Cookstoves offer a way to improve global access to modern energy, while addressing other goals like SDG3 (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages).

In past years, one of the topics in our World of 7 Billion student video contest has asked students to think critically about public health. Students are asked to come up with one sustainable solution to a global health issue, like indoor air pollution. Encourage your students interested in the public health category to learn more about how improved cookstoves can help create a healthier planet.