• Nearly four million people a year die from illness linked to cooking with polluting fuels, and women are most affected.
  • A third of the people on the planet lack access to clean fuels.
  • COVID-19 slowed progress on providing access to clean cooking fuels.
  • But there are projects providing people in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere with clean cooking solutions.

Somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa as you read this, there is a woman cooking food for her family over a smokey stove that is slowly killing her.

A third of people on the planet (2.6 billion) lack access to clean fuels, instead cooking on polluting open fires or simple stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal. Inhaling these toxic fumes kills more people than malaria – and women are disproportionately affected.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest data estimates around 3.8 million people die each year from illnesses, including pneumonia and lung cancer, linked to household air pollution (HAP) from cooking over stoves indoors with these solid fuels and kerosene.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more that 80% of the population has to rely on these fuels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

Access to clean cooking is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Access to clean cooking is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Image: IEA

Indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than the acceptable level of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and it affects women and young children more because they spend more time around the stove, according to the WHO.

In children under five, 45% of pneumonia deaths are caused by inhaling soot, says the WHO, while women exposed to high levels of indoor smoke are more than twice as likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than women who use cleaner fuels and technologies.

Clean cooking and gender inequality

Cooking in sub-Saharan Africa has a greater economic as well as health impact on women, as they take on the greater burden of housework.

Women can spend up to 20 hours a week on collecting firewood alone in communities dependent on biomass, according to a study published last year, while cooking on traditional stoves can take four hours each day.

The researchers note: “This time burden is increasing in many areas as a result of deforestation, forcing women to walk further to find the fuel they need, sometimes with risk of attack or injury.

“Globally, fuel collection has extremely high opportunity costs for women. It creates a vicious cycle, as more women are kept from income-generating activities, the less likely their communities can transition to cleaner energy.”

COVID-19 derails clean cooking progress

In 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions impacted household incomes, meaning it was harder to pay for modern fuels, around 50 million people in developing countries in Africa and Asia reverted to traditional use of solid biomass for cooking, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

After nearly five years of progress, the number of people without access to clean cooking increased by 30 million between 2019 and 2021.

The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2021 report said this shift, “together with the increased time spent at home due to COVID‐19 lockdown measures, increased exposure to air pollution and the associated health risks”. The IEA called for international efforts and financial commitments to achieve the UN’s goal of universal access to clean cooking by 2030.

But as the global population grows and energy demand rises, so will the health impacts of HAP, says Oliver Stoner, a statistician at the University of Glasgow.

“Our future projections suggest that without accelerated progress, just under one in three people will still be mainly using polluting fuels in 2030,” he writes in The Conversation.

How it impacts the environment

Africa’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small.
Africa’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small.
Image: Our World in Data

Besides the impact on human health, there’s another reason to get progress towards achieving UN SDG 7 back on track: the impact on the environment.

Although Africa is only responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, cooking with biomass contributes to global black carbon emissions, which is one of the largest contributors to climate change after carbon dioxide.

Replacing traditional open fires with improved cookstoves (ICS) globally, could mitigate between 0.6 and 2.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Providing electricity access and clean cooking solutions is a key part of the IEA’s roadmap to net zero. It estimates this would cost $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment on a path to net zero by 2050.

“This fairer and cleaner energy future is achievable if governments work together to step up actions,” says Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director.

Clean cooking solutions

Charities and NGOs around the world are working to increase access to clean cooking, including the Clean Cooking Alliance, which supports women entrepreneurs as advocates in the clean cooking sector.

In India, Solar Cookers International is working to introduce solar cooking, which uses mirrored surfaces to concentrate sunlight into a small space, cooking food without any carbon emissions.

UK charity Practical Action empowers women in Kenya to sell alternative fuels to firewood, which reduce the health risks.

It’s also teamed up with EcoAct, which sells carbon credits to businesses to fund the Darfur Sudan Cookstove Project, replacing traditional biomass stoves with liquified petroleum gas (LPG) to lower carbon emissions and improve air quality in homes.

One mother told the charity: “Before the liquid petroleum gas stove, I used wood and the traditional three stone fire to cook. This method of cooking affected our health. We had chest infections, coughs. I never allowed my children to come into the kitchen while I was cooking.”