Improved Biomass Cooking to Fight Climate Change and Poverty

Note: This blogpost was first published as an RWI Impact note in November 2015. 

Relative to other climate protection measures, public investments in the dissemination of improved biomass cooking stoves provide a very effective low cost measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More than three billion people in developing countries rely on inefficient cooking stoves fuelled by firewood and charcoal. Improved cookstoves have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas abatement costs to only 3 Euro per ton of CO2 equivalent and at the same time alleviate poverty.

Why does cooking in developing countries matter?
More than three billion people use firewood and charcoal for their daily cooking purposes, mostly in very inefficient stoves or in open fire spots. As many regions of the developing world rely on woodfuels extracted unsustainably from local forests, cooking contributes to deforestation and thus to a loss of carbon sinks. No less than one
fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to stem from deforestation. The environmental effect is not limited to global warming: soot emissions from the dirty combustion processes of traditional stoves are hazardous to health, leading to severe respiratory diseases that kill four million people worldwide every year. Improved cooking stoves not only reduce household air pollution, but also relieve women from the daily burden of carrying firewood to their homes.

What are the alternatives?
Electricity and gas – the typically used cookfuels in industrialized countries – are not available in most parts of the developing world. As an alternative, improved biomass cooking stoves are designed to economize firewood or charcoal by simple improvements in the combustion process relative to inefficient traditional stoves. A large variety
of such improved cookstoves exists. This is propitious, because each region requires a special type for differing cooking habits. Simple improved cookstoves economize 25-50% of woodfuel and come at production costs of 5 to 10 Euro per piece. This translates into greenhouse gas abatement costs of only 3 Euro per ton of CO2 equivalent, which is clearly below prices of traded greenhouse gas emission allowances in the EU and most alternative energy sector abatement strategies. The dissemination of improved cookstoves thus offers a low-cost emissions mitigation opportunity.

Why is a policy intervention needed?
While not all improved cookstoves have met the expectations accorded to them, in many regions rigorous research has proven their savings potential. The remaining challenge lies in dissemination, as improved cookstoves have not yet made their way into many households in the developing world. This is mainly due to two reasons: First, in most regions, firewood is not purchased, but collected, and thus the benefits of improved cooking do not pay monetarily. Second, even if people buy their woodfuels, poor households cannot afford the investment in an improved stove, because a pay-back-period of a few months is too long given the prevailing credit
constraints. By increasing investments into the research on and dissemination of improved cookstoves, a double dividend could be gained: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and alleviating poverty at the same time.

Sources: Own calculations, UNFCCC (2015), Umweltbundesamt (2015), Bailis et al. (2015), Johnson et al. (2009), Smith (2000), IPCC (2006). 
* in 1000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents, which is the aggregate measure for all greenhouse gases (including methane and carbon monoxide among others), calculated in terms of the equivalent concentration of carbon dioxide

Related papers:

By Jörg Peters and Gunther Bensch


Blog post | 1 December 2015