- Some 2.4 billion people cook on wood and charcoal fire pits or kerosene stoves.
- This accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and harms forests and public health.
- "Clean cooking" could help the climate but needs far more funding, a UN-backed group says.
The modern stove probably doesn't make you think about protecting forests. A group backed by the United Nations wants to change that in hopes of unlocking billions of dollars in funding for a little-known climate solution.
Some 2.4 billion people in the developing world lack access to "clean cooking," instead preparing food on wood and charcoal fire pits or inefficient kerosene stoves. The carbon-dioxide emissions are on par with the entire airline industry — about 2% of the global total — and exposure to soot shaves years off the lives of those who cook, who are often women and children.
There is also a cost to nature: More than one-third of the wood harvested for fuel isn't replenished, which contributes to forest degradation and threatens growing investment in nature-based climate solutions, according to a report out this week from the Clean Cooking Alliance.
"Lack of access to clean cooking is the most underinvested health and environmental problem in the world," Jillene Connors Belopolsky, the alliance's chief of staff and chief external-affairs officer, said. "It's historically been viewed as a women's issue."
The alliance works to spur adoption of stoves that meet international standards for indoor air quality, including those that use liquefied petroleum gas, biogas or ethanol. Electric stoves and pressure cookers also make the list.
Even though liquefied petroleum gas is a fossil fuel, it pollutes less than wood and coal and is the most cost-effective solution in sub-Saharan Africa, where the vast majority of households lack access to clean cooking and electricity, Belopolsky said. Farming communities also offer an opportunity in the region because animal and crop waste can be converted into biogas and ethanol.
But scaling clean cooking is hamstrung by a lack of financing from wealthier countries and the private sector, similar to most climate efforts in the "global south," which faces the direst impacts of global warming but has contributed the least to the crisis. Investment has hovered around $ 130 million annually, well below the $ 4.5 billion needed, according to estimates.
Connecting clean cooking to nature could unlock more funding. About $ 133 billion flows into forest protection and restoration, sustainable land management, and other nature-based projects, with calls to triple that sum this decade. If a fraction of that was funneled into clean cooking, it could make a big impact, Belopolsky said.
The Clean Cooking Alliance has advised more developing countries to put clean cooking in their climate-action plans and says investors and corporations should consider how the transition to cleaner cooking can make their investments less risky.
"You can't tell people they can't use the natural resources around them to feed their families without providing an affordable alternative," Belopolsky said. "If we invest billions of dollars to protect or restore forests or implement regenerative agricultural practices, but communities that live around those projects don't have access to clean cooking and are collecting wood, that's counterproductive and a risk to that investment."
There are signs the message is resonating. Between 2017 and 2020, the revenue that clean-cooking companies made from selling carbon offsets grew by 21 times. In 2020, Switzerland and Peru were the first countries to strike a carbon-offset deal under the framework of the Paris climate accord, which included clean-cooking projects. Switzerland provided the finance and eventually plans to count the emissions reductions toward its climate goals.