Half the world’s households prepare their meals over open fires or with jerry-rigged cookers fueled by scrap wood, coal, combustible waste and dung. Fatal burns are common and foraged fuel dangerously degrades indoor air quality. The World Health Organization reports that toxic smoke from inefficient stoves is the fifth biggest health risk in the developing world, killing 2 million people annually. This shocking statistic puts unsafe cooking nose to nose with HIV/AIDS on the global killing field, with women and children most vulnerable. Who knew?
For decades, aid advocates insisted that more efficient stoves using cleaner fuels could eradicate the problem in underdeveloped communities where electricity was unreliable and fuel supplies scarce. Now safe-stove news is popping up relative to refugee camps and “Occupy Wall Street” outposts. In the ‘90s, American inventor Peter Scott helped design low-cost portable “rocket stoves” which run on electric, gas or solar power and include powerful filters to limit harmful smoke. The New Yorker christened Scott the movement’s Thomas Edison, adding, “The average cooking fire produces as much carbon dioxide as a car, and a great deal more soot. Cleaning up these emissions may be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet.” But why isn’t this idea selling?
Could be that home cooking just ain’t sexy. Or maybe the market’s too fragmented to profitably produce and distribute the stoves.
Perhaps the project – like any new A-list eatery worth its salt – just needed some high-caliber patrons and a dishy face to front it.
Enter US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2010, she introduced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private coalition aimed at getting 100 million cookstoves out to the developing world by 2020. Next Julia Roberts stepped up as the Alliance’s global ambassador. The Alliance stresses that clean stove roll-out can significantly reduce childhood death from pneumonia, and Roberts notes the broader benefits, “The impact goes beyond people’s health. Burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon, which contribute to climate change. Cutting down trees for fuel causes natural habitats to dry up, forests to disappear and soil to erode.”
Smartly linking the initiative to climate change opens the possibility of using carbon tax as a means of financing investment. Global aid agencies could also promote the use of efficient cookstoves by direct-delivering units alongside humanitarian food aid. USAID already supports the project, pledging $50 million over the next five years.
Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Alliance, predicts that the emergence of middle-income countries such as the Next Eleven (N-11) will invigorate this sustainability movement. The N-11, which includes Egypt, Iran and Turkey, was identified in 2005 by Goldman Sachs as having a high potential of becoming the world’s largest economies in the 21st century.
To read more about the program, and to get directly involved in igniting this critical change, visit The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves website.
Top image via ethiovision