The Energy Crisis No One is Talking About: Cooking
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has helped spark energy crises around the world. One of the most under-appreciated of these crises is taking place far from the conflict zone – in emerging economies across Africa and Asia, where millions of people are being pushed back into using firewood for cooking due to the rising costs of fuel.
It’s a turn of events that could have deadly consequences. Air pollution is now the number one global environmental health risk, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Cooking over smoky fires and inefficient stoves that burn fuels like firewood and charcoal is responsible for 3.2 million deaths every year and nearly a quarter of global outdoor air pollution. Yet, for 2.4 billion people around the world, it is the only affordable or accessible source of energy for cooking.
The good news, until recently, was that progress on clean cooking was happening: between 2010 and 2021, half a billion people gained access to fuels and stoves defined as “clean” by the WHO, including solutions like electricity, liquified petroleum gas (LPG), or biogas. But with the Russia-Ukraine conflict causing energy prices to spike, and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to linger, much of that progress is threatened.
According to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, almost 100 million people who had transitioned to clean cooking solutions may soon no longer be able to afford it. Their only option could be a return to cooking with firewood – putting their health at risk, degrading forests, and contributing to climate-damaging emissions.
Low-income households are, out of necessity, very sensitive to fluctuations in energy costs. Numerous studies have shown that economic hardship associated with COVID-19 lockdowns worsened families’ ability to access clean fuel for cooking. A recent study in Kenya found that a quarter of households primarily cooking with LPG, a clean fuel, were forced to switch back to using polluting cooking fuels. With the conflict in Europe continuing to drive up LPG prices, even more families may have no choice but to follow a similar path.
Fortunately, there are ways to lessen the impacts of fluctuating energy prices and enable families to sustain clean cooking use.
World leaders should assess the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in its entirety, including the millions of people who may soon lose access to clean cooking. Donor governments, multilateral development banks, and foundations must then deliver the funding necessary to address these impacts. This could include expanding innovative funding mechanisms like the Spark+ Africa investment fund, supported by the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA), and the Nordic Green Bank’s Modern Cooking Facility for Africa.
At the same time, governments in low- and middle-income countries have plenty of tools at their disposal. Depending on the context, policies like targeted subsidies, fuel price caps, and the removal of taxes and levies on fuels and appliances can make clean cooking solutions more affordable and prices more predictable, even in the face of global disruptions. Initiatives such as CCA’s Delivery Units Network can support these types of in-country efforts.
In addition, clean cooking companies must continue developing creative ways to make their products affordable and consumer friendly. Pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) LPG systems – which allow customers to buy the amount of fuel they can afford, rather than pay for an entire canister at once – helped many users stick with clean cooking solutions during the economic strain of COVID-19 lockdowns. CCA’s Venture Catalyst program has assisted several companies in expanding their PAYGO or other consumer financing options.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict continues to dominate headlines, yet the coverage rarely mentions that the fallout impacts people far away on the brink of losing access to clean fuels for cooking. We need to accelerate the progress on clean cooking or risk a worsening and unacknowledged energy crisis that leaves millions unable to safely cook their meals.