Report by Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch that contributes to Global Forest Coalition research into German climate finance.
Clean and efficient biomass cookstoves have been attracting multilateral and bilateral development and, more recently, climate finance for several decades. The German government supports projects involving improved cookstoves both directly, through bilateral project finance, and indirectly, via funding for the Green Environment Facility, the Global Climate Fund and others.
Improved biomass cookstoves aim to reduce the amount of wood burned for household cooking in the Global South, and, at the same time, to reduce household air pollution to protect the health of women and young children in particular. The problems which improved cookstoves projects seek to addressed are very real and urgent ones.
Unfortunately, the results from peer-reviewed studies which look at the health impacts of improved biomass give little grounds for optimism: there appears to be no evidence of positive impacts on child health, nor on the incidence of the ultimately fatal respiratory illness, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is associated with exposure to air pollution. At best, women’s health is marginally improved, i.e. they experience fewer coughs and/or less phlegm and/or less eye irritation, with blood pressure readings showing improvements in one trial. However, in the largest and most long-term study to date, one which replicates the most common approach in climate finance projects (the mass delivery of stoves without follow-up repairs and maintenance), no positive outcomes were detected. Where marginal benefits are found, they appear to be linked to better ventilation, greater outdoor cooking and, in one case, a switch to charcoal- which is not good news for forests (since the total wood use is greater).
Furthermore, there is so far no evidence of any successful biomass stove projects which have reduced pollution levels to within the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for indoor air quality.
Clearly, the ideal outcome would be for all women to have access to clean cooking, using low-carbon renewable electricity, biogas or solar stoves.
Sadly, this is not a likely scenario in the foreseeable future. Communities affected by energy poverty, especially in rural areas in the Global South, will continue to rely on whichever measures help them to reduce the harm from biomass burning. There will continue to be a need for organisations working with such communities to help identify ways of reducing indoor air pollution from biomass, e.g. by helping to install stoves with chimneys, or by providing stoves that allow more of the cooking to take place outdoors.
However, the inclusion of biomass cookstoves into climate finance is highly problematic for three reasons:
a) Although fuelwood demand for cooking contributes to forest degradation in several regions, claiming potential greenhouse gas savings from reduced biomass use in the Global South is unjust and illogical when, at the same time, the EU and other countries in the Global North are allowed to (misleadingly) claim greenhouse gas reductions from burning more wood for heat and electricity.
b) The purpose of climate finance is to mobilise significant additional funding for implementing solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help vulnerable communities adapt to the already unavoidable level of climate change. Improved biomass cookstoves do not represent such a solution. The very best projects may to some extent reduce the harm caused by indoor air pollution as well as the amount of wood burned. Climate finance should go towards genuine solutions even if they are more expensive, i.e. solar stoves, renewable electricity or biogas made from local waste and residues.
c) As shown below, claims about fuel-use savings from improved biomass stoves are based on laboratory tests under idealised conditions. Studies invariably show that one cannot extrapolate from laboratory tests to the real-world use of stoves.Stoves that are clean and efficient in a laboratory may be much less so, if at all when used to cook meals. Furthermore, households very commonly use new stoves in addition to their traditional ones, rather than as replacements.
d) Arguably the most serious impacts of biomass stoves are those on the health of women and children. Climate finance projects may class reduced indoor air pollution as a secondary benefit, but they are not designed as public health measures.
This report looks at the evidence regarding the public health impacts of improved biomass stoves, at the controversial accounting for greenhouse gas savings from such stoves and, finally, at three climate finance projects involving the large-scale dissemination of stoves. A closer look at the three projects shows that they favour the dissemination of large quantities of stoves with little or no quality control.