Clean Cookstoves: On a Mission to Save Families and the Environment


Taking on Meal Prep Pollution

Four million people worldwide, mostly women and children, will die every year from household air pollution due to the smoke and pollutants from open fire cooking and outdated stoves. Women and children in developing countries are especially affected as they spend up to 20 hours a week gathering biofuel for cooking. As a result of burning wood fuels, one gigaton of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. The emissions from deforestation for wood and charcoal fuel for cooking contribute up to 5% of greenhouse emissions, which is equivalent to the emissions generated by the aviation industry each year.

For 500,000 rural families in Honduras, an improved stove is a potential life saver by reducing carbon monoxide, methane, and soot particles inside the home.   ©Rndlawrence / Wikimedia
For 500,000 rural families in Honduras, an improved stove is a potential life saver by reducing carbon monoxide, methane, and soot particles inside the home. ©Rndlawrence / Wikimedia

Therefore, the introduction of more clean and efficient cooking stoves saves many lives and, besides that impact, contributes significantly to the reduction of CO₂ and other pollutants released into the atmosphere. Yet this sector is one of the most overlooked climate solutions.

Types of Clean Cookstoves

There are several types of clean cookstoves with different designs that have been developed to address the inefficiency of open fire cooking and to reduce the exposure of harmful smoke. The main types are:

  • Biomass cookstoves: These stoves use wood, agricultural residues, and dung as fuel. The stoves are designed to minimize the exposure to harmful smoke by burning the fuel more efficiently.

  • Solar cookstoves: These stoves use sunlight to heat food. The stove is usually a box with a reflective surface that focuses the sun’s rays on the cooking pot. The main benefit of solar cookstoves is that they do not use any fuel, so there are no emissions.

  • Natural gasifier stoves: These stoves use a gasifier to convert solid fuels such as wood or charcoal into a combustible gas. The gas is then used to cook food in a similar way to using natural gas. Gasifier stoves can be more expensive than other types of clean cookstoves, but they are very efficient and have low emissions.

  • Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cookstoves: These stoves use LPG, which is a clean-burning fuel, as their source of energy. LPG cookstoves are similar to natural gas cookstoves in terms of efficiency and emissions.

  • Highly efficient coal cookstoves: These stoves use coal as fuel. The stove is designed to burn the coal more efficiently, which results in less smoke and pollutants.

Furthermore, the design of clean cookstoves varies depending on the type of fuel that is being used. For example, solar cookstoves are typically box-shaped to maximize the surface area that is exposed to sunlight. Biomass cookstoves are often designed with a combustion chamber that is separate from the cooking pot, to minimize exposure to harmful smoke.

Based on the design, clean cookstoves demonstrate a wide range of efficiency, and can be disruptive in both positive and negative ways. In some societies, the smoke of traditional stoves is preferred, as it keeps the mosquitoes away. Other hurdles slow this sector’s growth; these include energy access; competing low-quality products of marginal effect; perfection vs good-enough design; and financing and business models that can supply affordable innovations to the weekly market. Over the past 10 years, there is much heated debate chronicling the clean cooking conversation.

Health Benefits of Clean Cookstoves

The main health benefit of clean cookstoves is that they reduce exposure to harmful smoke. Household air pollution from open fire cooking is a leading cause of death and disease, especially in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels kills 4 million people each year.

Energy efficient stoves (Berkeley Darfur Stove) being used with both charcoal and firewood in Lobule Refugee Settlement, West Nile Uganda. Clean cooking is a challenge specially in Refugee settlements where fuel access is very limited. reduce smoke inhalation by 77% and fuel consumption by 60%.   © Laura Toledano / Wikimedia Commons
Energy efficient stoves (Berkeley Darfur Stove) being used with both charcoal and firewood in Lobule Refugee Settlement, West Nile Uganda. Clean cooking is a challenge specially in Refugee settlements where fuel access is very limited. reduce smoke inhalation by 77% and fuel consumption by 60%. ©Laura Toledano / Wikimedia Commons

Most of these deaths are due to pneumonia caused by exposure to harmful smoke. In addition, exposure to smoke from open fire cooking has been linked to other health problems such as lung cancer, bronchitis, and heart disease. Therefore, by reducing exposure to harmful smoke, clean cookstoves can save many lives.

Environmental Benefits of Clean Cookstoves

In addition to the health benefits, clean cookstoves also have environmental benefits. One of the main environmental benefits is that they reduce emissions of harmful pollutants. Open fire cooking with solid fuels such as wood and dung releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, including CO₂, black carbon, and methane. These pollutants contribute to climate change and have negative health effects, whereas clean cookstoves that use efficient combustion techniques can reduce emissions by up to 50-90%.

Reducing Black Carbon Impact

Black carbon, or soot, refers to tiny carbon particles that form during incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels (such as wood, charcoal, coal, and kerosene), and is by far the most significant short-lived climate pollutant emitted during cooking. This soot is estimated to be second only to CO2 in its warming impact on the climate. The particulate absorbs sunlight, warming the atmosphere. It only remains in the atmosphere for a short period of time, then it falls back to earth with precipitation, in some cases darkening such surfaces as snow and ice, or reducing the reflecting power of a surface, thus causing sea ice and glacial melting.

Black carbon emissions from household cookstoves that consume solid fuel produce approximately 25 percent of total anthropogenic BC emissions. Due to the high use of inefficient biomass burning cookstoves, the residential sector is found to be the greatest contributor to black carbon emissions. Clean cookstoves differ in that they might be solar-powered or fuel-burning household stoves that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing thermal efficiency, reducing specific emissions, or increasing ventilation.

Reducing Deforestation Impact

Another environmental benefit of clean cookstoves is that they can help to reduce deforestation. In many developing countries, people rely on wood as their main source of fuel for cooking. This reliance has led to widespread deforestation, as trees are cut down to meet the demand for fuel. Clean cookstoves that use alternative fuels such as LPG can help to reduce the demand for wood, and therefore help to reduce deforestation.

Replacing traditional wood and coal-burning cookstoves with cleaner technology could trim nearly a tenth of a degree from global temperature. Research shows that the effect of cutting emissions on global average temperature is far greater for some parts of the world than others. For example, greater climate benefits by 2050 would come from halting cookstove emissions in China, India, and Ethiopia, research shows. Indications are that phasing out emissions in these countries could account for about half the total potential reduction in global temperature.

Companies and Organizations Supporting Clean Cookstoves

There are many nonprofit and for-profit organizations that support the funding, building, and operation of clean cookstoves. Some of these organizations include Greenway Appliances, The Cookstove Project, and UNESCO Green Citizens’ Vash Green Schools Project.

Greenway Appliances

Greenway Appliances is a social enterprise that manufactures and sells clean cookstoves in India. Greenway's mission is to make clean cooking accessible and affordable for all while creating jobs and combating climate change. The company was founded in 2011 and today operates in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Africa. Greenway Appliances has a wide range of cookstoves that use diverse types of fuel, including wood, charcoal, dung, and agricultural waste. The company also provides financing options and after-sales service to make sure that their products are accessible and affordable for all.

The Cookstove Project

The Cookstove Project is a 501(c)3 US non-profit organization that helps women and their families gain access to efficient, clean cookstoves through solutions that are unique to each country. The non-profit encourages the use of clean cookstoves with health, hygiene, aesthetic, and economic advantages. The Cookstove Project specifically trains homeowners in building and maintaining their own clean cookstoves using local and readily accessible materials. The project also emphasizes personal and community ownership to keep costs low and ensure the organic growth of the project. The Cookstove Project has impacted over 60,000 people by building 12,000+ stoves in countries like Uganda, Nepal, and Kenya.

UNESCO Green Citizens’ Vash Green Schools Project

UNESCO's Vash Green Schools Project is an energy transition project that works to address energy poverty in rural schools and households in Uganda. The project provides schools with solar panels and ecological stoves and cookers. The project has provided 15 schools with access to lighting by equipping them with solar panels. Ecological stoves and cookers have also been built, with the involvement of users, to better meet the needs and economic capacity of these communities. Furthermore, teaching methods have improved with the availability of electricity. For example, teachers can distribute typed materials with greater ease.

The Way Forward: Why Switch to a Clean Cookstove?

Back in 2010, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, launched a public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Over the years, the initiative has encountered many obstacles. Challenges such as push-back from tradition in many cultures, efficiency failure, poor durability of the products, lack of infrastructure for supplying cleaner fuel, costs of materials and projects. Cheap clean stoves were supposed to save millions of lives. Where are we?

As of 2018, clean cookstoves were indeed used by over 53% of families in developing regions with the rest using open wood or charcoal fires for cooking, with the concomitant health and environmental effects. Even so, an ever-widening range of “improved” cookstove technologies exists, with a wide range of impacts on emissions. Advanced biomass stoves are more promising. By forcing gases and smoke from incomplete combustion back into the stove’s flame, some cut emissions by an incredible 95 percent, but are more expensive and can require more advanced pellet or briquette fuels.

Progress and development have been slow in fits and starts. Yet there are many reasons to continue the switch to clean cookstoves. Clean cookstoves offer health, environmental, and economic benefits. They also have the potential to help reduce deforestation and combat climate change. Lastly, there are many organizations and companies