CLEAN COOKING: New efficient, affordable cookstoves, such as this model developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, may help to improve indoor air quality, reduce deforestation and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Image: LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABORATORY
Two words have pushed fuel-efficient cookstoves in a way that millions of deaths and acres of felled forest could not: climate change.
Early interest in the cookstoves, initially envisioned in the 1970s and '80s as a means of reducing deforestation in developing countries, waned when well-meaning projects failed to deliver results.
Even as the awareness of the health risks that come from poor, inefficient cooking methods grew, cookstove projects largely remained a fringe activity. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.6 million deaths were attributable to indoor smoke from solid fuels in 2000.
Only now, decades after the first clean cookstove, does it appear that these projects are finally gathering momentum among major institutions. The climate bills in both the U.S. House and Senate set ambitious goals for moving efficient, affordable stoves into 20 million homes throughout the developing world within 5 years.
Energy ministries across several Latin American countries are making an inventory of their cookstove needs to assess their energy consumption. And the U.N. Foundation plans to announce its new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves this September.
"Stoves took off when people in developed countries realized it affected our environment," said Mark Bryden, a professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University. Socially motivated tinkers and engineers have been working on the problem for decades, but governments and deep-pocketed organizations are relatively new to the fold.
Bryden, who studies combustion -- wood, in particular -- got involved with clean cookstoves in 1998 after learning about the range of the injuries and diseases stemming from unhealthy cooking practices. Smoke inhalation is a cause of or is associated with everything from acute respiratory infections like influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis and bronchiolitis to deformities among children still in the womb -- such as cleft palates.
Bryden said it was clear to him: "It was shortening women's lives."
Fixing the problem of poor indoor air quality around the world, Bryden said, does not require "impossible levels of money." But, he added, "Because climate change affects us, now we care. I know it's cold, but it's probably true."
Rising awareness about black carbon
Half of the world's population -- roughly 3 billion people -- cook their food and heat their homes by burning coal and biomass material like wood and animal dung, over open fires or rudimentary stoves, according to U.S. EPA. Emissions from these fires are thought to have potent effects on the planet's climate.
Over the last four to five years, black carbon -- a component of soot -- has emerged as a major contributor to global climate change. About 20 percent of black carbon emissions come from biomass burning sourced from activities like cooking.
For many, pushing clean cookstoves represents an opportunity to tackle three major global issues: climate change, public health and deforestation.
"[E]missions of black carbon are the second strongest contribution to current global warming, after carbon dioxide emissions," wrote Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a prominent climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Greg Carmichael, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Iowa, in the April 2008 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.