Billions of people cook over open fires. Are gas stoves the solution?

Could changing the way you cook help fight global warming? If you’ve considered this question and you live in a rich country, you’ve probably been thinking about whether to ditch your gas stove for an electric or induction cooktop. But for nearly a third of the world’s population, even that gas stove would be a big step up from the preindustrial cooking methods still in wide use across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some 2.3 billion people regularly cook their meals over open fires or on makeshift stoves using fuels like wood, animal dung, charcoal, and coal — methods that generate deadly local air pollution and are far more carbon-intensive than the electric and gas stoves enjoyed by the relatively wealthy of the world.

The lack of access to these “clean cooking” technologies is responsible for 3.7 million premature deaths annually, due to the harms of breathing smoke from cooking fires (which often accumulates indoors), according to a report from the International Energy Agency, or IEA. Fortunately, the total number of people without access to clean cooking is falling, largely due to progress in Asia and Latin America. But in Africa, that number is trending in the opposite direction, as campaigns for clean cooking have not been able to keep up with massive population growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In an effort to address this, representatives of 55 nations convened in Paris last week for the Summit on Clean Cooking in Africa, organized by the IEA. The marquee announcement of the conference was a $2.2 billion pledge by governments and the private sector to increase access to clean cooking in Africa.

While cooking disparities have been recognized for decades as a health crisis and driver of gender-based inequality in the world’s poorest regions — given that women are typically responsible for cooking in these households and thus most directly exposed to indoor air pollution — the climate crisis has given the issue additional urgency in recent years. Darby Jack, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, attended last week’s summit and told Grist that “there was a fair amount of focus on clean cooking as a low-hanging climate fix,” in contrast to the issue’s longstanding framing as primarily a public health crisis.

Smoke-spewing cookstoves and fires are responsible for around 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — roughly equivalent to the carbon contribution of global air travel. But besides being an easier problem to solve than the notoriously difficult-to-decarbonize aviation sector, universal access to clean cooking would bring a litany of attendant health and welfare benefits, and help preserve ecosystems and biodiversity threatened by unsustainable wood-harvesting methods.

At the summit, a host of signatories including countries, civil society organizations, and corporations issued a declaration “making 2024 the pivotal year for clean cooking.” But conspicuously absent from the declaration was any mention of what Jack described as a “perennial debate” among advocates of clean cooking: the question of what kind of stoves count as appropriate improvements on preindustrial methods and, in particular, the role of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, in addressing the crisis.

“Is it smart, is it ethical, is it good for the Earth to promote a fossil fuel, when in other domains we’re trying to move away from fossil fuels?” asked Jack, whose own answer to this question, and that of many other experts, is yes — for now.

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“Long term, we want to electrify everything and have renewable energy, but that’s a long way away,” Jack added.

In the U.S., Jack’s work has involved advocating for moving people from gas to electric stoves, but he believes Africans can’t afford to wait for the infrastructure and investment necessary to avoid using LPG as a “transition fuel.”

“The ideal thing would be cooking with electricity from a clean grid, and that’s just really far away in Africa. It’ll take billions of dollars to get the grid ready for electric cooking, and further billions to get the grid clean,” Jack told Grist. And in the meantime, he noted, the industrialized world is busy building out natural gas infrastructure. “The idea we should tell Africa they can’t use gas for environmental reasons, while we’re not just using it but further developing it, is a profound hypocrisy,” he added.

Other researchers disagree. One of them is Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Although he considers Jack a friend with a reasonable position on the issue, Kammen contends that the adoption of LPG stoves “slows down the process for us to switch to electric cooking” in Africa, and he argues that the rapidly increasing cost-effectiveness of electric cooking is underappreciated by health researchers.

Kammen told Grist that he sees the enthusiasm for LPG stoves as stemming from their role as “a lifeline being thrown to the fossil fuel companies — fossil fuel companies want to keep them on the agenda.”

Indeed, the Paris summit was heavily attended by gas companies, and despite the lack of official recognition of LPG in the event’s declaration, some in the industry celebrated the attention as a “turning point” for the fuel. At the conference, the Dutch commodities trading multinational Vitol announced $550 million worth of clean cooking investments in Africa, partly in the form of LPG infrastructure. The interest in clean cooking as a climate solution has also given rise to a growing carbon credit market in which polluters such as airlines buy “cookstove credits” that pay for some portion of the transition from older to newer forms of household cooking — though a study Kammen co-authored this year showed that such credits often dramatically overestimate the emissions reductions that the new stoves achieve.


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