Climate policies on collision course with clean cookstoves drive

Switching from dirty wood stoves to propane saves lives, but carbon pricing threatens to make it unaffordable for millions in South Asia

Traditional open fires are linked to respiratory problems (Flickr/Engineering for Change)

Traditional open fires are linked to respiratory problems (Flickr/Engineering for Change)

By Megan Darby

Climate policies could kill hundreds of thousands of South Asians if not matched with support for clean cookstoves.

That was the stark result of models published in new journal Nature Energy on Monday.

Curbs on greenhouse gas emissions are set to – directly or indirectly – increase the price of fossil fuels. That risks making modern energy like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and electricity unaffordable to poor people in countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal.

It is a potential obstacle to efforts to tackle indoor air pollution, a rampant public health threat from cooking over smoky open fires.

“Assuming countries will respond to concerns about climate change, we wanted to see what the impact would be on the poor,” says Narasimha Rao, researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and co-author of the paper.

“That hasn’t really been analysed and quantified in the past.”

In India, the country with the most solid fuel users globally, the government has been subsidising LPG. Now, it is phasing out blanket support, instead offering cash transfers to those who seek them out.

From a global warming perspective, burning LPG is not thought to be significantly worse than traditional fuels. Wood stoves generate short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, as well as contributing to deforestation.

But LPG is a fossil fuel. Global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank discourage fossil fuel subsidies, saying they benefit the rich more than their poor intended recipients, and encourage wasteful consumption. What is more, they recommend carbon pricing as a key tool to prevent dangerous climate change.

IMF: Fossil fuel subsidies to hit $5.3 trillion in 2015

A carbon price rising from US$30 a tonne in 2020 would hike the cost of cooking with LPG 28% by 2030, the study by the Vienna-based IIASA shows. That makes it unaffordable for 336 million people in South Asia. Continuing to use traditional dirty stoves condemns an estimated 170,000 to 350,000 people to early deaths.

The analysis highlights tensions between sustainable development and climate goals.

Last September, world leaders agreed at the UN to “ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services” within 15 years. In December, they adopted a climate deal that implies a fossil fuel phase-out before the end of the century.

These can be reconciled with suitably designed policies, the IIASA said.

“We found that is is useful to subsidise the stoves themselves,” Rao told Climate Home. “Coming up with the upfront cost of the stove can be prohibitive for many people. But they still need a fuel subsidy to make the use of those stoves affordable over time.”

More money is needed for energy access, in any case. If climate were not an issue, getting 90% of people cooking on gas by 2030 would take between $6.3 and $30 billion a year. Protecting the climate bumps the minimum cost up to $17.1 billion.

Read more on: Asia | India