Clean cookstoves can save 1 million lives a year, says World Bank

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Cookstoves

Global pollution is accelerating the melting of ice and snow. A new report from the World Bank and  International Cryosphere Climate Initiative says fourteen actions must be taken today to preserve the world’s ice, snow and permafrost in order to slow down climate change.

Acting now will save lives and keep the global temperature from rising. A fifty percent reduction in open field and forest burning can save 190,000 lives each year. Another 340,000 deaths can be averted by reducing the emissions from diesel vehicles.

The recommendations are not solutions to the problem of emissions, rather targeted areas where global leaders can focus their efforts and have impact. For developing countries, the situation is dire. An estimated 1.5 billion people live in the Himalayan mountain range in Asia. Rising temperatures and melting snow is contributing to problems like increased floods in some parts and drought in others.

The biggest gains can be made in the household. Getting four cleaner cooking solutions into the hands of the world’s poor could save one million lives a year, says Rachel Kyte, VP of the Sustainable Development Network, in the report’s introduction.

“The benefits would multiply because, with cleaner air, cities become more productive, child health improves, and more food can be grown,” she writes.

The report recommends the use of more clean cookstoves, small stoves that emit significantly less smoke that open fire cooking. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the prefered method of cooking is with three stones to balance a pot over a wood or charcoal-fueled fire. Homes feature rooms or separate indoor structures for cooking, creating a smoke-blinding experience for the cooks, usually women, on a daily basis.

“The damage from indoor cooking smoke alone is horrendous – every year, four million people die from exposure to the smoke,” said World Bank president Jim Kim. “With cleaner air, cities will become more productive, food production will increase and children will be healthier.”

Cookstove advocates like former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have tried to draw attention to the problem of indoor smoke inhalation and pollution caused by current cooking methods.  The UN Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves brings together governments, advocates and the private sector to increase the use of newer technologies.

Predicted Percentage of Glacial Melts Contributing to Basin Flows in the Himalayan Basins

Existing evidence shows that clean cookstoves can decrease indoor air pollution.  However, they face some resistance to use when used in the home. Some people complain that the food does not taste the same when cooking with the new stoves, likely a result of less smoke in the room that flavors some dishes. Newer models have helped to deal with the problem, but getting people to consistently use them is a bigger problem.

Researchers from Harvard and MIT looked at clean cookstove use in Orissa, India over a four year period. They found that households used the cookstoves for the first year or so, but more infrequently over the final three years. The study determined that the health saving impacts touted by advocates of clean cookstoves did not happen in reality.

“The declining effect appears to be the result of stove breakages combined with insufficient investments in maintenance, reductions in the number of meals cooked with good stoves, and inappropriate use. We found no observable effects on health, even in the early years,” wrote the authors.

The four million annual deaths caused by household smoke exposure exceeds that of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. The report shows that increasing the use of clean cookstoves will both save lives and help reduce planet-damaging pollution.  Their impact exceeds any other intervention making it’s uptake all the more urgent.

“The human costs of inaction are enormous,” writes the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative’s Director, Pam Pearson.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.