Transition to Clean Cooking Is a ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ in Climate Action
Helping vulnerable populations get access to energy options that reduce air pollution during cooking is an easy way to cut carbon emissions while also improving health and gender equity

Improving access to clean cooking will not only help the world get closer to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it will not be possible to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without doing so, said experts speaking on the sidelines of COP28. 

“We don’t want people to be breathing polluted air as a result of the fact that they are preparing food,” said Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

Globally around 2.3 billion people rely on polluting traditional fuels like wood and biomass for cooking, according to the latest report by WHO. It estimates that the cooking sector contributes 3% to the annual global carbon emissions.

It also causes tremendous indoor air pollution. In 2022 alone, indoor air pollution was estimated to be responsible for 3.2 million deaths, according to WHO. 

Women and children are particularly vulnerable as in many cultures they are responsible for cooking and related chores like gathering firewood. Air pollution is also linked to a rise in miscarriages and worsens pregnancy outcomes. 

The lack of clean cooking is a human rights issue, especially for women and children, said Bhushan Tuladhar, Chief of Party of USAID Clean Air in Nepal.

 “There are so many co-benefits associated with it that it’s almost a no-brainer. And it’s a low-hanging fruit,” he told a COP28 side event on a just and inclusive cooking transition.

The impact of indoor air pollution on women’s health has only in recent years garnered some attention, despite clear evidence of it.


Bhushan Tuladhar, an air pollution expert from Nepal.

In addition, cooking with biomass leads to the release of a sooty black material called black carbon. In fragile ecosystems like the Himalayan country of Nepal, this black carbon settles on the glacier ice and increases the rate of melting.

“It’s not just about climate benefit, but when you are reducing black carbon emissions, you’re also not altering your monsoon seasons. There’s energy and agricultural security, and food security is being impacted by this emission,” Michael Johnson, Technical Director of Berkeley Air Monitoring Group, told the event.

The $2.3 trillion cost of inaction

WHO estimates that 1.9 billion people will not have access to clean cooking by 2030 if the pace of improving access is not accelerated. 

In its report titled, “Achieving universal access and net-zero emissions by 2050,” WHO estimates that the annual cost of the impacts of lack of clean cooking on health, gender, and the global climate is US$2.4 trillion.

“Lifting the world’s 2.3 billion people still living in cooking poverty, as we call it, is an urgent issue. And it has enormous potential for societal benefits, particularly for public health, women’s productivity, empowerment, climate and environment. The important thing is the cost of inaction is a staggering US$2.4 trillion given all the damages this can cause,” said Chandrasekhar Govindarajalu, an energy specialist at the World Bank. 


Chandrasekhar Govindarajalu of the World Bank said the bank is working to improve access to clean cooking in 33 countries, and its support has reached 43 million people.

Need for clean cooking in sub-Saharan Africa

Access to clean cooking fuels has improved around the world. In Asia, governments have been pushing policies to improve access to LPG cylinders and electric stoves. 

In Nepal for instance, now 54% of the households rely on biomass compared to 75% 10 years back, due to the government initiative to improve LPG access, Tuladhar said. In India, the world’s most populous country, government push improved LPG access from 43.8% in 2016 to 58.6% in 2021. While the numbers are higher for urban households, rural areas continue to lag. 

But in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people without access to clean cooking has increased. “Population growth has outpaced these improvements, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where the number of people without access reached 0.9 billion in 2021,” according to WHO’s report. 


The number of people without access to clean cooking is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, as the growth of population has outpaced rate of the growth of access.

Govindarajalu added that to meet the climate and energy access targets, the rate at which access to clean cooking is currently improving has to be double or triple.

Alternate options: LPG and electric stoves

The two options for clean cooking to replace traditional fuel are electric stoves and LPG cylinders. Both have their challenges, especially in rural areas. While for electric stoves one needs steady and reliable electricity, it is hard to lug LPG cylinders across rural and mountainous terrain. 

Tuladhar said electric stoves are proving to be cheaper in Nepal’s rural areas but electricity access is not yet 100% and the intensity of electricity is not adequate in all areas. 

WHO too estimates that while LPG access will improve in the near term, in the long term it will be the electric stoves that will have to be employed to reduce emissions.  

WHO’s roadmap to help the cooking sector get to net-zero carbon emissions.

Tuladhar told Health Policy Watch that while soon the focus will have to be to increase LPG access, in the long-term it is electric stoves that will bring the maximum reduction in air pollution and carbon emissions. They can only be pushed once electricity access improves.  

Countries are also including clean cooking as a part of their national climate targets, said Johnson which is a good move but its impact is hard to measure, and each country is currently using their own frameworks to do so.

Experts reiterated that the issue of clean cooking is closely linked to the development of the country. “When it comes to energy transition there is no silver bullet, and clean cooking has to be part of the solution, especially as an issue that is so anchored to the development of the country,” said Duccio Tenti, UNDP’s energy team leader

Image Credits: Aalok Atreya/ Unsplash.

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