India Announces Improved Cook Stove Program

India cook stove

Updated Version

India revealed a program today to provide efficient cooking stoves to rural areas in an effort to reduce air pollution and a major contributor to climate change. 

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announced the National Biomass Cook-stoves Initiative, a series of pilot projects that seeks to improve stove efficiency for individual households.

The program, if implemented properly, could provide a quick solution to short-lived pollutants that contribute to the greenhouse gas effect and are responsible for millions of premature deaths across India.

The government has not yet established targets for implementing the cookstove program. "We are trying to put together a plan first and test it out because we don't want to set up targets right at the outset and then not be able to meet them," said Shyam Saran, the prime minister's special envoy on climate change, according to the Press Trust of India.

An estimated 826 million Indians depend on simple cook stoves that burn solid fuel, mainly fuelwood or coal. When households are filled with smoke from inefficient stoves, the toxic soot can increase the risks of developing pneumonia, cataracts, and tuberculosis.

More-efficient biomass stoves can reduce India's climate impact as well. When soot settles on light-colored snow or ice, less sunlight is reflected into space. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its 2007 assessment that soot, also referred to as black carbon, is one of the most potent greenhouse pollutants. Eliminating black carbon could quickly limit global warming due to the short period of time the particles remain in the atmosphere, the international science body said.

India revealed its improved stove plan in time for the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, this month, where negotiators hope to agree on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. India also recently announced efforts to boost domestic solar power, improve energy efficiency, and reforest large areas of countryside.

But the government is interested less in emissions reductions and more in the potential for efficient stoves to improve the health of rural residents, said Kirk Smith, a visiting environmental health  professor at the Chandigarh-based Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research.

"India sees [improved stoves] as a social and health development priority. Climate is the icing on the cake," said Smith, who has researched methods to distribute improved wood stoves in India through his full-time position at the University of California at Berkeley.

A public health study of benefits from greenhouse gas reductions in India, released last month in the British medical journal The Lancet, estimates that 15 million improved stoves distributed every year for the next decade would supply 87 percent of households across India.

Such a program would avoid 17 percent of the premature deaths and disability from respiratory infections, heart disease, and bronchitis that would have occurred in 2020, saving some 55.5 million years of healthy life that would otherwise be lost from air pollution exposure, the study found.

"The No. 1 illness among Indian children is acute respiratory disease," said Roger Glass, associate director for international research at the U.S. National Institutes of Heath, at the launch of The Lancet study. "While we can do some things with vaccines, there are some nice synergies between reducing air pollution and acute respiratory disease."

Improved cook stoves could also significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 0.5-1 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases, notably methane, black carbon, and carbon monoxide, would be avoided, according to the study, led by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of California at Berkeley, and University College London.

"It seems on the face as a no-brainer," said Nafees Meah, head of science for the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change. "Early action benefits India more than most countries."

Previous improved cookstove programs in India and elsewhere have often failed, however - either because households were not properly trained on how to use the new technologies, or because adapting to the new stoves required users to change their traditional cooking methods.

"You can't drop a stove into a household and walk away," said Rita Colwell, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park and former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. "You need to do follow-up. You need implementation."

About one-third of the world burns wood and other biomass for cooking, heating, and lighting, accounting for 13 percent of global energy consumption. When burned in traditional cooking stoves, the toxic emissions result in 1.6 million premature deaths each year, according to World Health Organization estimates. Children younger than five account for half of the fatalities.

Correction: The article originally mistated the conclusions of a study published in The Lancet. The study did not state that health benefits of a proposed cook stove program would affect 55.5 million lives. Rather, study authors found that 55.5 million years of life would be saved.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.