Status quo - clean cooking

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Understanding and facing the clean cooking issue


Most discussions on access to energy focus on electricity and often “access to energy” is erroneously understood to refer exclusively to access to electricity.  Access to energy refers both to access to electricity AND access to clean cooking and heating facilities.

The number of people exposed to serious health damage from indoor pollution created by an inadequate combustion of biomass inside the home, usually for cooking purposes, is more than twice the number of people who lack access to electricity. The “clean cooking” issue is not well known or recognized.

Improved access to clean cooking remains elusive” is the title of a paragraph in IEA (2017), p.12.  Notwithstanding some success stories, one third of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people - still rely on the traditional use of solid biomass, while another 120 million people cook with kerosene and 170 million with coal.


Measurement issues

Furthermore, there is a serious measurement problem. Traditional statistics identify “clean cooking” with any way of cooking food and heating the home without the use of solid biomass. However, indoor pollution may derive from burning coal or other fossil fuels, which are not biomass. In addition, there are ways of using solid biomass or coal with minimum pollution, using advanced or “improved” stoves.  There is therefore a large overlap of various types of behaviors.

The IEA (2017) uses a definition of clean cooking as “access to safer and more sustainable cooking and heating fuels and stoves than traditional biomass stoves” (p.130). The databases reported in Annex A of the same publication, which have been based on data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), contain separate measures of the population relying on biomass and of the population without access to clean cooking. The two figures for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 were close (783 million and 846 million respectively) with most of the difference being found in Nigeria: one out of four Nigerians, who do not have access to clean cooking, does not rely on biomass but on kerosene; similar conditions, although in smaller size, are found in Kenya. Throughout the text, the variety of fuels used in different countries is accurately described.

The consequences of indoor combustion on health are also difficult to measure. The same IEA publication reported a WHO estimate of 2.8 million premature deaths in 2015 due to household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies. This figure would be only slightly reduced by 2030 in the New Policies scenario, built on present and planned policies, reaching 2.5 million. Only in the hypothetical exercise called Energy for All Case would the number of premature deaths be further reduced by an additional 1.8 million in 2030: the resulting figure should then be 700 thousand. Recently (April 2018), the WHO published a new and higher estimation: household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused 3.8 million premature deaths in 2016. It is to be imagined that all figures for 2030 should be proportionally revised upwards now.


Improved access to clean cooking remains elusive

The IEA (2017) report underlines the fact that the number of people lacking access to clean cooking today (2.8 billion) is about the same as in 2000, and it will be only reduced to 2.3 billion by 2030 globally, while in sub-Saharan Africa it will grow further. 

In rural areas, the most common stepping stone towards clean cooking is the introduction of improved and advanced biomass stoves: yet they are likely to be used by no more than one out of ten households relying on biomass as a cooking fuel in 2030.

The same report goes on to state that even in the Energy for All Case, in rural areas around 1 billion people will gain access via improved biomass cookstoves, while LPG and biogas provide for the remaining 1 billion people.

The investment required for clean cooking facilities is modest. Yet experience shows that past programmes can fall short if they don’t take account of social and cultural factors and do not involve women from the outset.


Awareness is growing

Perhaps the issue is finally resurfacing from neglect. The Economist (circulation 1.5 million, essentially comprising the global leader class) of April 5, 2018 carried an article entitled “Household smoke may be the world’s deadliest environmental hazard”. Here, alongside stories of the world leaders, readers find the story of Fatou N’Dour cooking in her kitchen in Lambayene, Senegal, and opening the way to a description of the world issue and to the statement “That efforts to change how people cook have fallen so short for so long can be blamed on weak markets, uncoordinated charity interventions and muddled priorities.”

The reference to weak markets is not generic. It refers to local products, such as primitive but efficient stoves, which local people are ready to pay at a price above their production cost, as experiments have proven, and which are hard to sell for a variety of reasons: because men go out to do shopping and stoves are for women, because they are heavy and breakable so they can be sold only locally, because occasionally charities and aid agencies hand out stoves for little or nothing and this confuses people and disrupts markets.

Better cookstoves produce a smaller improvement in health conditions than switching fuel.  Although generally fossil, gas is a locally clean fuel since it creates negligible local pollution and the contribution to global emissions of household cooking by the very poor is also very small, compared to emissions from industrialised countries. A switch to gas cooking can produce an immediate health improvement, while a complete transition to clean and renewable energy and cultural change in favour of more environment-friendly habits take decades.

Further Information

Energy Access portal


IEA (2017), Energy Access Outlook 2017. From Poverty to Prosperity.

WHO website, April 2018:


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This article is part of the Energy Access Portal which is a joint collaboration between energypedia UG and the “World Access to Modern Energy (WAME)". WAME is managed by the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MuST), the Fondazione AEM and the Florence School of Regulation (FSR) and it is supported by Fondazione CARIPLO.

Written by: Pippo Ranci: Principal Advisor at the Florence School of Regulation, Chairman of World Access to Modern Energy