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Clean Cookstoves Must Be Rethought so They Actually Get Used in Developing World

A woman demonstrates a clean cookstove in India.

A woman demonstrates a clean cookstove in India. Photo: U.S. Consulate Chennai, Flickr Creative Commons

 

By Esther Duflo, Michael Greenstone, Rema Hanna, Radha Muthiah

Almost three billion people around the world—or 4 out of every 10 individuals—are exposed to high levels of smoke each day from traditional cookstoves. After water, indoor air pollution is the largest environmental threat to health in developing countries. Women and young children bear the brunt of these costs. Further, the reliance of the world’s poor on solid fuels for their cooking needs, in the end, affects us all through the release of carbon dioxide and black carbon that contribute to climate change.

Improved cookstoves and fuels, which emit less smoke and are more efficient, have great potential to improve respiratory health and stem the tide of climate change. In laboratories and under controlled conditions, they have been shown to reduce smoke exposure and greenhouse gas emissions. However, their effectiveness in the real world crucially depends on whether they are adopted and properly used when households make their own decisions about how to allocate time and resources.

In a recent working paper released by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, entitled “Up in Smoke:  The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves,” we presented results from the largest randomized evaluation of an improved cooking stove program to date.  The results were unfortunately discouraging:  through four years of follow-up, we found that the stoves did not lead to long-run improvements in health and fuel use remained unchanged.

This was an unwelcome surprise: based on the existing evidence, and simple common sense, when we started this project more than seven years ago, we expected large health effects and set out to investigate additional benefits on adult productivity while working, children’s school attendance, etc.

What happened? The cookstoves used in the study were improved and inexpensive. Although they are not as clean as the newer cookstoves available today, these improved cookstoves demonstrated the potential for positive change: they performed well in laboratory settings and in the field they reduced indoor air pollution exposure for the women who did most of the cooking during the first year. But this potential was limited by the fact that many households did not regularly use their new stoves, and did not invest enough in their maintenance to keep them in working condition. In short, they appeared not to value the improvements in health enough to get the potential benefits.

What does this mean? Certainly not that the world should abandon all hope to reduce its dependence on traditional cooking fuels. Rather, this research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop  cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety.  To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

This is why the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, whose objective is to develop and promote practical, sustainable solutions to the problem of indoor air pollution, is committed to engaging with stakeholders to foster an open and honest dialogue on improved cookstoves. Highlighting both successes and failures is the only way we can learn from experience and solve this very complex problem.

Furthermore, the Alliance is committed to help support new innovative research, bridging the gap between science and behavioral studies to ensure that stove technologies that are promoted in developing countries meet both the highest level of technical excellence and fit user preferences.  A current call for proposals, available on the Alliance’s website, invites research on health impacts on cookstoves and future funding will soon be made available for research into other areas in the sector.

Indoor air pollution is an avoidable scourge. One discouraging study should not set the world back in the effort to eradicate it. On the contrary, it should renew our enthusiasm to search, with open minds, for appropriate solutions. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action lab are determined to play their part in this fight.

 

The authors are from MIT and J-PAL (Duflo and Greenstone), Harvard and J-PAL, (Hanna) and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (Muthiah)

 

Comments

  1. Gloria Ezeonyeasi
    London, England, UK
    October 31, 2013, 9:48 am

    I was surprised to see that clean cookstoves are are not common or even known in Nigeria. How can I get involved in promoting and marketing this invaluable product? Where in the UK can I go to learn the design and maintenance of clean cookstove? Thanks

  2. Scott
    United States
    January 9, 2013, 3:57 pm

    Tom: I realize that this is coming through a few months after your message, but I suggest you contact burndesignlab.org . They are a member of the Alliance mentioned above.

  3. Tom Flaming
    October 19, 2012, 5:03 pm

    Please send a few designs of cookstoves that are applicable to SE Asia for a trip there this winter. thanks