By Eliza Strickland

If there were a museum of good intentions, the massive effort to give improved cooking stoves to the global poor would have an exhibit hall all its own.

About 3 billion people still cook their food on open fires or traditional stoves (typically a few mud bricks on the floor), which release plumes of soot into the air. These emissions of black carbon are noxious, particularly when the cooking is indoors, and they also add to the global greenhouse effect. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 4 million people die every year from illnesses related to household air pollution, and some climate researchers argue that black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in its contributions to global warming.

The answer seems clear: Give those 3 billion people clean-burning stoves! Many philanthropic groups, including the sprawling Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, have poured millions of dollars into such initiatives. That alliance, backed by the United Nations Foundation and dozens of governments, corporations, and foundations, has helped local groups distribute some 80 million cookstoves around the world since 2010.

Too bad such well-intentioned efforts aren’t getting the job done. A report published this May about progress on global energy goals, with data from the World Bank and four other international agencies, found that if the current trajectory of technology adoption continues, “2.3 billion of the global population will still be without access to clean cooking in 2030.”

So how can do-gooders change that trajectory? Look to a project in the eastern India state of Odisha that’s been funded by the telecom company Qualcomm since 2009. The project, called StoveTrace, uses data and money to tackle the biggest problem in every clean-cookstove campaign: getting women to alter their behavior and actually use the new stoves they’re given.

Nexleaf’s Ruiz says she’s confident that the model is scalable, but others aren’t so sure.

“It sounds very expensive,” says Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Greenstone is the coauthor of the report “Up in Smoke,” which found that clean-cookstove programs have failed to improve human health or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He and his colleagues monitored women for four years after they received their stoves, with discouraging results; the paper states that “households used the stoves irregularly and inappropriately, failed to maintain them, and usage declined over time.”

To scale up the StoveTrace program, Greenstone says it could be linked to carbon offset markets that would fund the monthly payments; such markets enable companies and consumers to compensate for the greenhouse gases emitted by their own activities. But while Greenstone commends Nexleaf for its innovative economic model and its eagerness to test its technology in the field, he’d like to see independent studies that compare the program with other interventions. The women have to like the stoves and the program enough to keep it cooking, he says. “We can’t wish for people to have preferences that they don’t have.”

Continue reading at IEEE Specturm…

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Areas of Focus: Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Air Pollution
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