Just recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed how many lives are impacted by air pollution. Nine out of 10 people on this planet breathe air with high levels of pollutants, resulting in seven million deaths every year. This makes air pollution our biggest environmental health risk.
As the world continues to urbanize, emergent middle-class populations in China, India and elsewhere are putting new strains on our global energy resources. Easy access to energy is often the measuring stick for societal advancement. Images of smoggy cityscapes with dramatically obscured skylines offer telling visual proof of the numbers reported by the WHO. Though outdoor (ambient) air pollution is a serious issue, more than half of deaths caused were the result of household air pollution (HAP). Though HAP receives less attention than ambient air pollution, it causes more deaths than HIV, malaria and TB combined.
Worldwide, three billion people lack access to modern cooking fuels such as electricity and liquified petroleum gas (LPG). Instead, they cook with biomass fuels such as wood, charcoal, dung or crop waste, over smoky fires and inefficient stoves. This is often done inside the home, and it wastes 90% of the fuel’s energy. HAP is the noxious combination of smoke, particulate matter and other emissions from this solid fuel combustion. These common cooking practices are resource-intensive and highly dangerous. They are the leading cause of global exposure to HAP, and disproportionately affect women and children.
Understanding the problem
While we have resources to show ambient air pollution levels around the world in real time, there is no way to pull up instant data about a kitchen in rural Maharashtra, India, in which a mother is cooking bread on a mud chulha stove for her child to take to school, or about a crowded street corner in Accra, Ghana, where a vendor is making plantain chips on a pile of lit charcoal inside a coalpot made from a car tyre.
Household air pollution is not a new problem. Progress is being made in reducing exposure to it through the sale and distribution of clean cooking solutions. Since 2010, 116 million clean cookstoves have been distributed worldwide, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Until recently, most solutions for fighting HAP were focused on replacing traditional stoves with improved biomass stoves. While this is a good short-term solution, it is best used as a stepping-stone for families until cleaner fuels are available.
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Contrary to popular belief, liquified petroleum gas (LPG), despite being a fossil fuel, is a better environmental option than unsustainably sourced biomass fuel. LPG is a byproduct of the refinement of crude oil. It burns cleanly without soot, and emits 50 times fewer pollutants than biomass burning stoves. Life cycle assessments demonstrate that LPG actually contributes little or no net warming effect, due to its low carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, efficiency and completeness of combustion, and the continued high performance of LPG stoves.
In addition, replacing biomass with LPG removes the burden of harvesting wood, which prevents deforestation. While studies are still being conducted to determine the health impact of biomass stoves, LPG has had clear results as one of the only fuels with emissions below the World Health Organization guidelines, demonstrating decreases in respiratory and other infections.
Engineering modern cooking
The biggest barrier to universal LPG adoption is affordability. However, prices are reducing every day thanks to household energy solutions that use cutting-edge technology to address energy poverty. For the past decade, our company Envirofit has worked to fight HAP by designing, manufacturing and delivering clean cooking solutions to help families transition up the energy ladder, from wood to charcoal to LPG.
Envirofit’s SmartGas service was designed to reduce barriers to accessing LPG, and increase its affordability. This is accomplished through the Envirofit SmartGas meter, which is equipped with mobile and IoT technology to dispense fuel on-demand. This technology will not only enable families to afford clean cooking with LPG, reducing their environmental footprint, but will also allow the industry to track clean cookstove adoption in real time to help measure its impact.
Creating access to modern energy at scale is difficult. Three billion people worldwide still cook with biomass. While some groups are hesitant to embrace LPG as a viable clean fuel, governments such as India, Indonesia and Ghana have recognized the role that it can play in helping families cook cleaner. Bilateral organizations such as SE4ALL, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) and the World LPG Association are proponents of LPG. The need for greater global access has been taken up by the UN and their Sustainable Development Goals. Their seventh goal is to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all".
People living in energy poverty face risks to feed themselves and their families that people in high-income countries do not. This does not mean they should be denied access to clean fuels that reduce their environmental footprint and improve their health. Reducing 3.8 million deaths every year to zero is what motivates us every day. By understanding the problem, and by embracing cleaner fuels and new technologies to create long-term solutions, we can ensure fewer people are exposed to household air pollution tomorrow than were today.