When the United Nations adopted its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the aim was to address poverty, global inequality and climate change simultaneously through 17 different goals. One of these goals is to achieve access to clean energy for all. However, an often overlooked aspect of energy poverty is cooking poverty — the lack of access to modern cooking methods and technologies. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Energy Progress Report, 2.8 billion people across the globe do not have access to clean cooking and instead rely on solid fuels like wood, kerosene, coal or animal dung. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals clearly outline the importance of clean cooking. However, there remains a lack of awareness about the issue and not much progress has occurred since 2015. The 2020 Energy Progress Report predicts that, by 2030, 2.3 billion people would still lack access to clean cooking technologies.
The Health and Social Impacts of Cooking Poverty
Cooking poverty also impacts other targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, such as good health and gender equality. People enduring cooking poverty depend on pollutant fuels like wood and coal, which result in indoor air pollution. An estimated 4 million people die prematurely every year due to indoor air pollution, which causes respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. The World Bank also finds that non-clean cooking ties to more acute physical ailments, such as burns that occur when cooking with traditional resources.
The financial impact of cooking poverty on public health is significant, costing $1.4 trillion each year, but the social impact is even greater. Cooking poverty disproportionately affects women and girls who serve as the primary cooks in most households. Because the burden of collecting fuel and cooking often falls on women, indoor pollution affects them the most. Furthermore, because outdated methods of cooking are very time-consuming, this often means women and girls cannot spare time to go to work or school — deepening their poverty.
Fortunately, new technologies and initiatives led by national governments, private companies and nonprofit organizations are making clean cooking a reality in low-income countries. There are three main ways that initiatives are targeting cooking poverty.
3 Ways to Address Cooking Poverty
- Behavioral Change and Awareness. The simplest step toward clean cooking is increasing awareness of indoor air pollution and promoting change. The World Bank’s Carbon Initiative for Development partnered with the Mind, Behavior and Development Unit in Ghana, Rwanda and Madagascar to identify some behavioral changes that would make clean cooking easier. For example, the initiative found that Rwandans could save time and fuel by soaking beans, a staple food, overnight rather than slow cooking the beans throughout the day. Other simpler practices include leaving the door open while cooking, cooking outdoors and keeping children and other family members away from the kitchen while cooking. While these are important practices to adopt to reduce exposure to air pollutants, most initiatives are going further to introduce new technologies for clean cooking.
- Improved Cookstoves. ICS, or improved cookstoves, are more efficient biomass stoves, meaning they rely on wood, coal or other biomaterials like traditional stoves. However, the improved cookstoves burn the fuel more efficiently, which can cut down the time of exposure to pollutants. The World Bank-supported Bangladesh Improved Cookstoves Program helped provide 1.7 million improved cookstoves across Bangladesh by 2019. This resulted in a reduction of 3 million metric tons of CO2 greenhouse gases and cut the use of firewood, the primary fuel source in Bangladesh, by more than half. The ICS program in Bangladesh also had economic impacts, saving each household 375.84 Bangladeshi taka each month, according to the State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services. Currently, improved cookstoves do not meet the World Health Organization’s definition of “clean” cooking methods because the stoves do not reduce emissions sufficiently enough to note meaningful health benefits. However, the improved cookstoves are inexpensive and save time that can go toward income-generating activities or education.
- Clean Cooking Technologies. The most advanced step to end cooking poverty is the adoption of clean cooking technologies that reduce emissions to a meaningful degree while also saving time and money. Clean cooking includes the use of stoves powered by electricity, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), solar heat and alcohol, among other sources. Electricity now makes up 10% of cooking fuels globally and LPG makes up 37%. At the same time, the share of kerosene and coal is declining. Gas is also overtaking unprocessed biomass as the most popular cooking fuel in low and middle-income countries, thanks to urbanization and younger generations’ openness to clean cooking solutions, according to the 2020 Energy Progress Report. Despite this, the introduction of clean cooking technologies has not caught up with population growth and faces financial and cultural barriers. NGO work, like that of World Central Kitchen, empowers local communities to transition to clean cooking by converting outdated school and community kitchens to LPG-based kitchens. By targeting larger kitchens, World Central Kitchen positively impacts more people. Innovative business models are also proving successful in making clean cooking technology more reliable and affordable. Lastly, grants provided by the World Bank’s Clean Cooking Fund aim to incentivize the private sector to supply modern energy cooking services.
Ending cooking poverty is dependent on many factors and requires a variety of solutions by many actors, among them national governments, nonprofits and public-private partnerships. Overall, the ongoing efforts to provide access to clean cooking help contribute to global poverty reduction.
– Emma Tkacz