(Cookstoves Future Summit, New York) — Unless you are a serious camper, most of us in the developed world do not really think about cookstoves, let alone how they operate and their massive global impact. Cookstove devices, from the rudimentary to the latest designs, are a crucial part of daily life for 3 billion people around the world who depend on them for basic sustenance. And they exist at the nexus of three critical forces that will drive the global conversation for the foreseeable future: women’s rights, environmental issues, and the public-private partnership model.

Here at Cookstoves Future Summit in New York, these conversations are in full swing.

Environmental Impact

Professor Tami Bond of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne rang true with the crowd today, saying that “everything we do changes the atmosphere.” In light of the recent U.S. – China climate deal and UN negotiations next year in Paris, the world is focusing on reducing carbon emissions. Though much of that focus is on big polluters like manufacturing plants and automobiles, nearly 21% of global black carbon emissions come from cookstove smoke, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Most cookstoves use inefficient fuels that contribute to not only black carbon emissions but also methane, another harmful greenhouse gas. Common fuels like coal, charcoal, wood, dung, and crop wastes burn dirty, but are used because communities have no access to cleaner sources of energy like electricity or solar power.

Another impact between human use of cookstoves and the environment is the obvious deforestation surrounding these communities. The tragic irony is that many are destroying the forests for wood not just to use for cookstoves, but to produce charcoal from the land off of which they once lived.

Perhaps the most stunning effect of cookstoves, obvious to any outsider who has visited a rural community that uses these stoves, is the basic air quality issue. The number of deaths caused by inhalation of fine particles and carbon monoxide combined with the dangers of an open fire in an under-ventilated space is staggering. In India and China both around 1 million people die a year from related pulmonary issues, with thousands dying across African and Latin American countries.

Women’s rights

The environmental impacts of cookstoves are also directly related to women’s rights and empowerment.  Anita Shankar of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health explained during a panel that women are bearing the brunt of the negative health effects of ‘dirty cookstoves.’ Shankar says “women’s empowerment is…often seen as a byproduct of clean energy access,” but really she says it comes from the micro-entrepreneurial ability of women in these cookstove communities.  

Introducing clean cookstoves to a market not only goes a long way in reducing carbon emissions and improves the environment, but allows women an avenue of income and improves their health and education, and that of their children. The impact seems to be exponential as Shankar describes a study her group conducted in Kenya.  Taking a look at a group of 250 male and female entrepreneurs tasked with selling clean cookstoves, she found that women outsold men at a 3-to-1 rate. Shankar came to the conclusion that clean cookstoves are a perfect medium for empowering women because “not only do women know cooking and know how to sell cooking…they can to explain how to use it well. So it’s not just about getting the cookstove that’s important, it’s about using it correctly, and using it consistently.”

Private-Public Partnership

UN Under Secretary General Kandeh Yumkella spoke in a tone not often used by UN officials, one that business people can clearly understand when noting “we don’t have to stop people from using [existing cookstoves], we have to incentivize them to switch.”

With 3 billion people relying on cookstoves daily, cleaner cookstoves are products with immense market potential even given the economic constraints of most of the consumers. Pushing for universal adoption of clean cooking solutions and incentivizing even a small portion of that population makes business sense in many ways.  

Part of the public-private sector nexus in the cookstove space has to do with infrastructure development, specifically in the electricity and power grid industry. Yumkella notes that any investments that are made for clean cooking must be “part of broader energy sector reforms.” He notes that especially in Africa, the UN and World Bank are saying “do for the energy sector what you did for mobile telephones. Deregulate, incentivize, government can facilitate but let the private sector do their business properly.”  

The private sector seems to be ready to take on the challenge on the cookstove design side of the business, with several models displayed in an exhibit at the Summit but companies will need to be resilient enough to enter emerging markets with confusing and often binding regulations, working in markets on a micro-scale.

“Here is a problem that affects 3 billion people, and the solution is within our grasp and within our means,” executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves Radha Muthiah noted this morning.  The design is there, and now the market development needs to follow.  Cleaner cooking adoption will not just improve the environment, positively and dramatically change the lives women and girls, but also benefit the private sector – incentives not so clearly visible for other global problems.

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