August 6, 2018

Program to Use Solar Cookers to Eliminate Breathing Toxins While Cooking Does Not Produce Intended Results

In 2009, I published a post on this blog about solar cookers, which offer a simple, safe, and convenient way to cook food without consuming fuels. Solar cookers provide a number of value propositions including a solution of cooking without breathing toxins that are generated when cooking with fires fueled by wood or dung. For people in developing countries, using solar cookers also eliminate the need to walk long distances to collect wood or spend their limited income on fuel. Having traveled to developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean throughout my career, I have long advocated governments or nongovernmental organizations to financially support programs that help deliver solar cookers to the world's most vulnerable populations.

Given my enthusiasm for this wonderful device that seemed to help millions of people, mostly women and girls, in developing countries worldwide, an article by ProPublica captured my attention. Eight years after the formation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a Washington, DC-based public-private partnership hosted by the UN Foundation, and $75 million spent by the organization that "was formed to help mount a sustained effort at tackling the threats posed by household pollution" including a pledge "to help engineer the distribution of 100 million cookstoves," the article says "the Alliance has fallen well short of its ambitious health and climate goals."

The article's author, Sara Morrison, notes, "An array of studies, including some financed by the Alliance itself, have shown that the millions of biomass cookstoves of the kind sold or distributed in the effort do not perform well enough in the field to reduce users' risk of deadly illnesses like heart disease and pneumonia."

What is more, "The stoves also have not delivered much in the way of climate benefits. It turns out emissions from cooking fires were less of a warming threat than feared, and that — outside of some de-forestation hot spots — the harvesting of wood for cooking fires only modestly reduces the sustainability of forests."

Ms. Morrison importantly explains that "[t]he Alliance's top officials do not dispute that they have met with an array of disappointments. For one thing, they said, some of the countries and companies that pledged tens of millions of dollars early on failed to deliver, which they blamed on shifting priorities and agendas, not the Alliance's struggles."

Going forward, "The Alliance's plans for the future come with something of an ironic twist: It will now make greater efforts to promote and distribute stoves that use propane, a fossil fuel, the same blue-flamed byproduct of gas drilling contained in cylinders under countless American backyard grills. (Outside of the U.S. propane is most commonly called liquefied petroleum gas, or lpg.) These stoves, it turns out, burn much more cleanly and efficiently than nearly all biomass stoves, reducing the harmful smoke given off during cooking while having a negligible impact on the climate."

While I am disappointed by the article's findings that the Alliance's solar cookers program did not produce the intended results, it is encouraging to see a shift take place with the aim to achieve a benefit to those in developing countries whom are tasked with cooking. Initiatives of these nature carry a high risk of failure. The problem of breathing toxins while cooking has not disappeared and it is essential to evaluate lessons learned and proceed with the knowledge gained to creating a long-term sustainable solution that will benefit billions of people worldwide.

What are your thoughts utilizing solar cookers for clean and efficient household cooking solutions?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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