When cooking is hazardous to health

Approximately half the world’s population relies on traditional biomass (wood, animal waste, coal or charcoal) for cooking fuel because of limited access to clean sources of energy. This dangerous practice causes indoor air pollution and leads to severe respiratory diseases that kill approximately two million people worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organization. It’s a dire problem that assistant professor Hisham Zerriffi and his research team are working to solve.

“Energy poverty is one of the biggest human welfare issues of our day,” says Zerriffi, who is based at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC. “We’re talking about more people who die each year from cooking than from malaria.” It is often women and children who suffer the most from indoor air pollution, and who carry the burden of collecting fuel to burn. Beyond health and gender equity implications, burning biomass is also associated with environmental concerns such as carbon emissions and climate change.

Although there are a variety of fuels and methods to burn them more efficiently, little progress has been made in getting individuals to switch to better cookstoves and modern fuels. “It’s a complicated problem because governments can’t afford to hand out improved cookstoves to a continually growing population, and the private sector needs to recover its costs so they can continue to distribute more stoves,” explains Zerriffi. Businesses are having trouble staying afloat because the majority of consumers who need this product are very poor.

“We need to combine new technologies with smart policies … and help create viable markets, encourage households to switch to new stoves, and fix some of the gaps in funding – especially for those at the lowest end of the income scale,” he says.

A possible solution that’s received mixed reviews involves using financing from carbon-offset programs to support the distribution of cleaner stoves. Organizations that distribute cookstoves can apply for carbon credits in the internationally regulated carbon offsets market, or sell them on the voluntary market. Zerriffi’s colleague, Professor Michael Brauer of the UBC School of Population and Public Health, is evaluating such a carbon credit-financed program in India. He will measure health improvements, the extent to which harmful emissions are being reduced, and whether the stoves are sustainable and accepted in the community.

“There is great potential to dramatically improve people’s lives and reduce a major source of emissions related to climate change,” says Brauer, “but there is also the potential to squander lots of money and goodwill.”

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