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Cooking is a universal practice that binds humans across the globe— it’s also a practice cutting short the life expectancy of the world’s poorest. In countries the world over— in Africa, in Asia, in South and Central America, mostly— nearly 3 billion people (that’s over a third of the world’s population) prepare dinner with smouldering wood, dung, and charcoal in rudimentary stoves or open fires.
This practice fills kitchens and homes with smoke and clogs the air with fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, which are tiny, toxic particles that can lodge deep in the lungs. Almost 4 million people die prematurely every year from this kind of household air pollution. Women, who are generally responsible for cooking, and children with their underdeveloped lungs tend to be the most vulnerable. And it’s not just individual impacts— together with domestic heating and lamps, residential cooking accounts for 58 percent of global black carbon emissions, a super-pollutant with significant impacts on global warming.
Clean cookstoves, which are relatively affordable and simple appliances that use less fuel and cleaner fuel therefore emitting fewer harmful pollutants, could have major implications for mitigating these problems. But the sector is significantly underfunded. The International Energy Agency estimates that it will take $4.7 billion in annual investments to get people around the world universal access to clean cooking. Currently, investments likely fall short of $1 billion each year.
Significantly more funding goes towards other global health issues. The total amount of clean cookstove funding is less than $30-250 for every household air pollution death, compared to $2,000-4,000 for each death caused by diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Many researchers believe this is in part because data about cookstoves is still limited.
“You need to quantify those benefits before you can attract public funding or donor funding. Unless you know how much of those benefits you’re generating you can’t attract donors into that space,” said Zijun Li, a Climate Finance Specialist at the World Bank of what she calls a “huge funding gap.”
To bridge the related knowledge gap, the World Bank has partnered with the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group to undertake a field study with Sistema.bio in Kenya that will quantify and measure the climate, health, and gender co-benefits of clean cooking interventions.
It was a natural place for the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a voluntary partnership of governments and organizations, to lend a hand given that developing standards and testing protocols to evaluate the reduction short-lived climate pollutants and other co-benefits of clean cookstoves is a primary goal of the Coalition’s Household Energy Initiative.
While measurements of these benefits have existed in isolation, part of what makes this study exciting is that it is creating a way to measure them all at once.
“We have methodologies for measuring the impact on health, on black carbon, on gender, and on climate but no one has ever had a clear idea of what integrated verification could look like if you pull together all these co-benefits,” said Li.
This would make it simple and affordable to compare different cookstoves made by different market players to determine which would generate the most benefits when it comes to the health, gender, and climate impacts. Methodologically sound ways to measure these benefits could be a way to attract funding to the sector because investors could more confidently assess their returns on investment.
“It's exciting because being able to quantify these co-benefits would provide a really important revenue stream for projects. If done well, they should incentivize projects that perform well, projects that reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter should be rewarded and, similarly, so should those that have gender and climate impacts,” said Michael Johnson, Technical Director of Berkeley Air Monitoring Group.
These kinds of measurement schemes already exist for the carbon market. Whether a company or a country wants to offset their own emissions or give back with things like corporate social responsibility, they know exactly how big of a return they’ll get. That’s because there are widely agreed upon methodologies for quantifying emissions reductions, there is a robust verification scheme in place, and there is a market for verified results. This study hopes to lay groundwork to do the same for short-lived climate pollutant reductions of clean cookstoves, as well as gender and health impacts.
“What we are really looking to achieve through this study is to replicate these incentive schemes like we did for carbon and mobilize additional sector financing for these other co-benefits of gender and health,” said Li.
“This is really important and exciting work because one of the things that has been lacking in household energy has been results-based financing for things other than the traditional carbon market,” he adds.
Shining a light on these co-benefits is also incredibly important— clean cookstoves aren’t just about improving the environment.
“In most cultures, women shoulder the multiple burdens associated with cooking on a traditional stove, burdens that are often purported to be a significant barrier to progress in many women’s lives,” said Kirstie Jagoe, Project Manager at Berkeley Air Monitoring Group who is working on the study. “Women’s experiences and concerns are fundamental elements in product development and need to be comprehensively understood. Even the cleanest of stoves is unlikely to yield any health and climate impacts if it doesn’t meet the woman’s needs.”
The gender measurements will track changes such as whether women saved time cooking or collecting firewood and whether they got to use that time for more fulfilling or productive things.
One barrier the cookstove industry has faced is getting women to continue using clean cookstoves long term instead of reverting back to more dangerous and familiar methods, or continuing to use traditional stoves alongside cleaner stoves.
“A stove can be ‘healthy’ and more efficient— therefore providing positive climate impacts— but if it leaves a woman either afraid to leave the kitchen for fear of explosion or needing to stay close to a new biomass stove to provide constant tending, then the intervention is unlikely to reach its potential,” added Jagoe.
Measuring all of them together is a complicated undertaking, however. The project exists in three phases. First was the methodology review which involves comprehensively surveying the existing ways to measure these impacts and suggesting improvements. Then they designed a study that was a hybrid of these improved methodologies. The second phase, which has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, will be carrying out the field study. The final phase will be data analysis and a final report.
Once the study is done, companies on the ground will be able to use the tool to better plan their verification. For donors and private investors, it will give them confidence that these measures are based on a robust methodology— it should also save them money.
“From a cost-efficiency point of view if you conduct multiple studies for different co-benefits, it’s not just a burden on the project developers, the cost of carrying out that many studies would be prohibitively expensive,” said Li.
It also sends an important message: that climate change mitigation and development cannot happen in isolation, they must go hand in hand.
“Measuring all three impacts together gives gender effects the same weight and profile as health and climate impacts and ensures that they do get a spot-light and are measured, which historically has not always been the case,” said Jagoe.
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