New ‘E-Cooking’ Technologies Could Reduce Climate Change and Save Lives from Air Pollution
A three-stone coal cook stove in Kisumu, Kenya.

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt – Electric cooking is becoming more attainable for households in Africa, and BioLPG, a climate-neutral alternative to propane, could be a cost-effective replacement to the fossil fuel variant for household cooking in some developing countries, say experts at COP27, the global climate talks. 

The spoke at a panel session on tackling the health and climate crisis through clean cooking solutions, hosted by the World Health Organization at COP27.

The emerging potential to harness energy-efficient electric cooking technologies to clean up pollution from charcoal and wood stoves used by hundreds of millions of poor households offered one bright star in the mostly dismal news about climate trends and deadlocked negotiations, emerging out of this years UN Climate Conference.

For years, clean cooking solutions have received more lip service than cash from the energy and finance ministers who hold the purse strings of energy investment. Even in countries like Nigeria, which are rich in fossil fuels, governments have been far more intent on extracting oil and gas for export than expanding modern energy access at home. 

Despite major progress over the past decade, some 775 million people worldwide still have no access to electricity. And a whopping 2.6 billion people still cook on the most rudimentary wood, charcoal or biomass stoves that emit high levels of smoke directly into homes, said the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Heather Adair Rohani at the session on “tackling the health and climate crisis through clean cooking” solutions. 

Household smoke is both an agent of climate change and air pollution. It kills an estimated 3.2 million people annually including about 237,000 children under the age of five who are more prone to pneumonia as a result of their smoke exposure. Among older people who spend much of their day next to cooking fires, deadly cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as cataracts and other complaints, are a frequent outcome, Adair Rohani explained.

Inefficient cook-stoves and heating systems are also a leading source of excessive CO2 emissions, and the black carbon emitted by wood and biomass stoves is a short-lived climate pollutant that accelerates snow and glacier melt. Finally, wood gathering and charcoal production not only contributes to deforestation but also consumes excessive time for women and girls, detracting from work and education and putting them at physical risk.

Household smoke is a longstanding health and climate issue

The WHO has long viewed household cooking emissions as a critical threat to global health.

As a key impediment to women’s and children’s health and gender equality, household smoke has been an issue that WHO has championed since the early days of its involvement in climate issues – long before the global health agency began to weigh in forcefully on more sensitive topics like fossil fuels.   

Meanwhile, some of the clean cook-stove solutions that held promise a decade ago have not proven to be long-term solutions. Some “improved” biomass cook-stoves may reduce pollution emissions, but not enough to make them safe for daily use inside homes.

And certain renewable cooking solutions, like solar cook-stoves, have been met with social and cultural resistance in some settings, limiting their potential for scale-up. In many countries, large-scale government investments in clean cooking have simply failed to pan out, leaving the work to non-profit organizations, with a mixed bag of solutions and approaches.

New horizon created by improved electricity access

Despite the still yawning access gaps, the number of people without electricity in their homes declined from over 1.3 billion people in 2012 to 754 million in 2021, before rising slightly in 2022. And renewable electricity is much more affordable than it was a decade ago.

New solutions like e-cooking, which a few years ago were accessible only in middle and high-income countries, are now within reach, said Ed Brown, who leads the UK-backed Modern Energy Cooking Services initiative (MECS).

“E-cooking is becoming more feasible around African urban centres as more people gain access to reliable electricity,” he said. More energy-efficient electric induction stoves and cooking tools like electric rice cookers, are also helping that transition.

In east African countries like Kenya and Uganda, and Asian countries like Nepal, the proportion of people with sufficient electricity access to shift to e-cooking is growing, Brown said, adding, “We´re also watching developments in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi.”

In Kenya, over 70% electricity access

Located in Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya, the Olkaria III complex is the first geothermal power station in Africa.

In Kenya, over 70% of the population now has electricity access. In Uganda it’s over 40%, and in Nepal, over 95%. 

If just 40% of Kenya´s grid-connected homes currently using charcoal for cooking can be induced to shift to e-cooking by 2030, that could yield over $600 million in climate, health and ecosystem benefits over the first five years of electrification, for $110 million in costs. This would transition an estimated 700,000 households to clean cooking sources, Brown said. 

Through WHO’s interactive assessment tool, BARHAP, the team estimates that the upfront costs of the shift to e-cooking in terms of more efficient stoves or appliances would be paid back within 9 months. It would also save: 

  • 1,203 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) a year avoided;
  • 191million hours/yr of women’s time saved (272hrs/per household/ year);
  • 1.9 million tonnes/yr CO2eq emissions reduced;
  • 400,000 tons a year in unsustainable wood harvest reduced;

But e-cooking is hardly a panacea: some 60% of people in sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to electricity.

The drive to electrify Africa is gaining momentum as part of the Climate and UN Sustainable Energy for All agenda and initiatives by the countries themselves. 

Despite the push by many African leaders – backed by powerful oil and gas interests – to expand their fossil fuel production, green electrification is now much cheaper over the long term, at about two cents a kilowatt hour, Brown said. In some countries, it is also cheaper than charcoal, a resource often harvested unsustainably. 

Even Kenya and Uganda, which have invested far more heavily in fossil fuels than solar power, have put significant sums towards hydroelectric and geothermal electricity power generation. Renewables are now the backbone of their domestic electricity grids, generating 71% of Kenya´s power and 92% of Uganda’s. 

First ever e-cooking strategy in Kenya

Ed Brown, leader of the UK-backed Modern Energy Cooking Services initiative (MECS), speaking at COP27.

Supporting a shift to e-cooking requires a mix of measures. These range from subsidies to households for the purchase of more efficient stoves or portable cookers, to governments reducing household electricity tariffs to a level where e-cooking is more affordable than alternatives, particularly charcoal. 

“In Uganda, the government has introduced a reduced tariff for cooking. Up to a certain usage level, the price is heavily subsidized, and they’ve raised the ceiling on that,” Brown said. In Kenya, the UK-backed MECS initiative is supporting the government in the development of its first-ever e-cooking strategy.

In nearby Malawi, a new Global Green Grid Initiative, launched at last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, appears set to finance the development of Africa’s first national electric grid to be powered primarily by solar energy. The project, announced last month by the Global Alliance for Energy and the Planet backed by Rockefeller and IKEA foundations – aims to scale up electricity access from a meagre 18% to 100% by 2030 by developing mega and mini-solar grids.

“It is true there is still significant investment in fossil fuels,” Brown concedes, reflecting on Africa’s ‘dash for gas’ that has been the talk of this year’s COP27.  “There are discussions and moves afoot for changing that. I think that as we emerge out of the energy crisis [brought on by the invasion of Ukraine], electrification will continue to get greener rather than browner.”

BioLPG – the green version of a popular fossil fuel

MECS has also been looking at how biogas production could be industrially scaled up in a number of flagship African countries with investment into bioLPG (Liquefied petroleum fuel), a chemically altered version of biogas that is the equivalent of propane. 

An assessment by the Global LPG Alliance, produced in collaboration with MECS and published before last year’s COP26, estimated that some 1.65 million households in Rwanda, Ghana and Kenya could be supplied with bioLPG for their cooking needs, cost-effectively, through the development of just five large scale municipal and farm waste to gas projects. 

Multiple health and climate benefits

The health and climate implications of this shift go well beyond the production of cleaner and greener cooking fuel. 

From a health standpoint, both municipal waste and manure are sources of dangerous pathogens and disease, particularly in fast-developing cities where waste management is weak. and these pathogens are rendered harmless during the process of anaerobic digestion that produces biogas, leaving only a slurry bi-product that is also a rich fertilizer and thus useful for food production. 

Municipal waste is also the third most potent source of global methane emissions from human activity, after oil and gas extraction and agriculture/livestock. Together, municipal waste and agro waste generate some 45% of methane emissions from human activities. Methane has 20 times the climate warming potential of CO2 over the first 20 years of its lifecycle – as well as being a precursor of ozone – which reduces crop growth and is yet another air pollution risk.  

While biogas is carbon neutral, bioLPG undergoes a stage of chemical processing that enables it to be pressurized, bottled and transported, like propane. Its carbon footprint is slightly higher than that of biogas, but its climate impact is still a fraction of LPG made out of fossil fuels. 

Waste to bioLPG and bioLNG is already happening in the global north

A year after Glasgow, MECS is now in the initial stages of making a more refined estimate of the economic, political and logistical feasibility for two of the five pilot bioLPG projects assessed earlier in Kenya and Uganda. 

Across Europe and North America, a movement to convert biogas generated from municipal waste and manure into commercial products of value to consumers is already well underway.

In North America, the efforts are largely focused on transforming raw biogas into renewable natural gas (rNG), the chemical equivalent of fossil fuel, which can be integrated into the continent’s extensive natural gas infrastructure used in heating, electricity production and vehicles. Case studies from Toronto and Minneapolis, Minnesota, among other cities, were showcased at a biogas panel session Thursday, at COP27, by the World Biogas Association. 

In Europe, where LPG is more common, fuel distributors are shifting to bioLPG in line with European Union goals. Brown noted that leading UK LPG distributors aim to convert their infrastructure fully to bioLPG

Tools to assess choices in light of health and climate benefits  

One of the key innovations that WHO has created for policymakers is an interactive tool that supports a cost-benefit analysis of different household energy scale-up options by policymakers and practitioners in order to quantify the trade-offs in hard numbers. 

That tool, known as BARHAP, is what allowed Brown and his team to estimate both the payback period of investment in e-cooking in Kenya, and the savings in excess morbidity and mortality, women’s labour, and climate emissions. 

“The interactive tool, which is available online, accounts for the household expenditure, the government expenditures for cleanup, looking at different interventions, the climate impacts, the time loss [in fuel gathering], etc.” said Rohani. “It helps countries to see what the different interventions are, and what can you expect in terms of that cost-benefit from a different set of different solutions.”

That tool is just one part of a Clean Household Energy Solutions Toolkit (CHEST) developed by WHO over the past several years. The toolkit contains six modules in total, including resources for local stakeholder mapping, engaging the community, monitoring evaluation, standards and testing, and communications.

The toolkit aims to support policymakers and practitioners in reaching Sustainable Development Goal 7: access to “clean, affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030, which includes access to clean household fuels and technologies.

Assessing solutions in context

Replacing outdated stoves could improve the lives of millions.

“The toolkit allows policymakers to assess solutions that may be best suited to their geography, economies, culture and communities while yielding optimal reductions in air pollution and health benefits,” said Adair-Rohani.

The WHO has long championed the health benefits of clean cooking in terms of reduced air pollution exposures for women and children as well as savings in women and girls’ labour, and the “new narrative” of clean cooking is also building more on the economic benefits of “modernizing” – something that may appeal more to finance and energy ministers as well as to consumers, says Brown. 

“While progress was being made on ‘access to modern energy’ [in the form of electricity], the separation of cooking was perpetuating problems,” he said. 

Health advocates are shifting their pitch around clean cookstoves to capitalize on the “aspiration for modernisation, cleanliness and convenience”  which resonates among energy ministers and consumers to sell solutions that ultimately improve public health:

“Now we need to go to the folks that are putting money into electrification, and make sure that every electrification grid extension program that they still have is a clean cooking component.”

Image Credits: World Bank, IEA 2022 , IRENA.

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