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Can a thriving Clean Cookstoves Industry help expand Energy Access in Developing Countries?
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I asked this question because it is difficult for me to imagine that right now approximately two billion people, one third of humanity, do not have access to energy for their most basic needs such as cooking, lighting and heating. Not coincidently, this is the same one third that is currently living in extreme poverty. Access to clean and safe energy for cooking is essential for human development. No country in modern times has managed to reduce poverty and achieve economic development without increasing access to modern forms of energy. Without a massive scale up in access to clean and safe energy, the world's poorest regions will remain trapped in poverty.

For most Swedes, cooking is an enjoyable pastime and something that is normally taken for granted. We just flip a switch; turn a knob, and the stove turns own. However, for two thirds of the worlds' population, this fundamental task is both a tiresome burden and a major health risk. In Sub Saharan Africa, four out of five households do all their cooking over an open fire or using an inefficient wood or charcoal burning stove which exposes them to high levels of smoke and health damaging chemicals. They cook this way because they have very limited choice. Electricity is either unavailable - only 28% of SSA (excluding South Africa) is electrified - or unaffordable. Since the task of cooking usually falls to women and girls, it is they who face daily exposure to levels of pollution which are estimated to be the equivalent of consuming two packets of cigarettes a day (WHO, 2006).

The health impact of this exposure is devastating. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) smoke from domestic fires kills nearly two million people each year and sickens millions more. This is more than three people per minute. It is a death toll almost as great as that caused by dirty water and poor sanitation and AIDS, and greater than malaria. Without systematic changes, household biomass use will result in an estimated 8.1 million Lower Respiratory Infection (LRI) deaths among young children in sub-Saharan Africa alone between 2000 and 2030 (Bailis, Ezzati, Kammen, 2007, p 6). These are indeed startling figures. So why isn't more being done to tackle this problem? If indoor air pollution is responsible for more deaths globally than malaria each year, why don't we see a global push for energy access similar in profile and funding to the global anti-malaria campaigns?

One answer is that until recently, there has been a marked lack of political will to acknowledge and tackle this glaring problem. This was made blatantly clear in September 2000 when heads of state from all over the world met to agree on eight specific targets for combating poverty, disease, illiteracy, hunger and environmental degradation. The deadline for achieving these eight ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is 2015 - just five years from now, but we are far from on track to meeting these targets. A major reason for this is that Energy Access was completely left out of the picture. Amazingly, there is no Millennium Development Goal on Energy, despite the fact that lack of access to clean and safe energy, especially for cooking, is a major impediment to meeting every one of the MDGs. Now, with just over five years to go, we are beginning to see some momentum and a new global push to get energy access firmly on the development agenda. One major reason for this about turn is recognition of the enormous potential for so called “co-benefits”– additional or “bonus” opportunities for tackling climate change through projects designed to address the household energy problem in developing countries.

Replacing inefficient cooking devices with cleaner stoves and fuels, while immediately improving the health and well being of the users, could also have a significant positive impact on global warming in a relatively short time frame. This is because, unlike carbon dioxide which can remain in the atmosphere for many decades, black carbon particles generally fall from the sky in days or weeks. A wide range of new and improved cooking stoves, as well as cleaner fuels are currently being field tested – many of these show great potential for addressing the climate and health problems.

There is now widespread consensus among policy makers and the development community that addressing the energy access problem is a matter of urgency. In September 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was officially launched by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is a $250 million dollar public-private partnership to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. The Alliance's goal is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. www.unfoundation.org

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