02 November 2015

This thing is not a silver bullet: cookstoves edition

Because we as people like to over hype technical solutions, fads take off with plenty of fanfare that set up expectations well beyond what is possible. Cookstoves are a good example.

Indoor smoke inhalation is a major killer. Getting people who cook using open fires to change their methods can save a lot of lives and reduce illness. Enter the clean cookstove - an endeavor that dates back more than a half century. The idea is straightforward, come up with a device that does not give off much smoke, replace existing cooking methods with said device, et viola problem solved.

A recent piece by Marc Gunther in the Washington Post describes how the formula for suceess has not panned out as planned. He writes:
Of those 28 million cookstoves, only 8.2 million — the ones that run on electricity or burn liquid fuels including liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol and biogas — meet the health guidelines for indoor emissions set by the WHO. The vast majority of the stoves burn wood, charcoal, animal dung or agricultural waste — and aren’t, therefore, nearly as healthy as promised. Although these cookstoves produce fewer emissions than open fires, burning biomass fuels in them still releases plenty of toxins. “As yet, no biomass stove in the world is clean enough to be truly health protective in household use,” says Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley and the leading health researcher on cookstoves. 
That’s not the only problem with the stoves. Some perform well in the lab but not in the field. Others crack or break under constant heat. The best cookstoves burning clean fuels won’t protect poor families from disease if those who use them continue to cook over open fires as well — which many do. “They’re not the big solution, unfortunately, that we thought they were going to be,” says Rema Hanna, a Harvard economist who led “Up in Smoke,”the most extensive field study to date on this subject. Perhaps more research could apprehend what actually works, but for now it makes no sense to “push more stoves into the world that people aren’t going to use.”
To be clear, cookstoves are not bad. Nor is the effort to come up with better ways for people to cook and not endanger their health. Anyone who has spent even a few seconds in an enclosed space while an open fire heats food knows just how overwhelming all the smoke can be.

It is a whole different matter when it comes to getting people to change habits and even pay for a new household item. Challenges include generating enough heat and change in flavor when there is less smoke. Gunther's piece is worth a read as it explains further the history of cookstoves and more of the struggles to get the widespread initiative to have lasting impact.