Women and countries with lower incomes are hurt by blanket bans on fossil fuels

Ask my cousin if you want to know how dangerous cooking can become.

Women and countries with lower incomes are hurt by blanket bans on fossil fuels

Ask my cousin if you want to know how dangerous cooking can become. She was just three years old when she stepped on the kerosene stove of her mother in Saram, India. For the rest of her adult life, her face was scarred.

Some fuels can be dangerous. Around 2.6 billion people live in energy poverty, which is a lack of access to clean fuels. They cook on open fires and stoves that use kerosene or coal, animal waste, or other forms biomass.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.8 million people are prematurely killed each year due to illnesses caused by household air pollution. This is often due to fuels like biomass. Cooking with biomass causes more deaths than all of tuberculosis and malaria combined. I study solutions to energy poverty in my job as the director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental-research centre in Berkeley, California. My cousin is something I think about often. Even if she didn't turn the burner on, it would still be a problem for her.

These fuel sources have a particularly devastating effect on women and girls, as they are the ones who do most of the household chores and cooking. In India, a study found that women are more susceptible to developing health problems from indoor air pollution while cooking. Women with less education are also more likely than their more educated counterparts to develop these conditions (R. Ranjan Indian J. Hum. Dev. 13, 294-307; 2019). Because they have to gather fuel, women lose their time, security, and income. Girls who could otherwise go to school go outside to pick wood or cow pats.

It is already misogyny that women are responsible for cooking. A further insult is the public-health crisis associated with this chore in low-income countries.

Millions of women have been able to protect themselves by switching to cleaner fuels such as liquefied petroleum gases (LPG) which is made from refined petroleum. LPG cooking stoves, which are made from refined petroleum, are the best and most cost-effective way to improve women's health and decrease deaths due to indoor air pollution.

LPG, however, is a fossil fuel. It emits greenhouse gases when it burns. European countries like Germany, a major user of coal and natural gases, and Norway, one the largest natural gas exporters in the world, want to ban all financing of fossil-fuel projects in low and middle-income countries. This one-size-fits all approach to climate change is dangerous and leaves women exposed to the harmful smoke of dirty cooking fuels. This public-health crisis must be solved by the West.

The United Nations published last month a report about progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals including SDG7 (see www.nature.com/3y6i). This report aims to provide affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for everyone by 2030. The report shows that the world is far from the required investments to achieve this goal. To achieve universal access to clean fuels, it will take approximately US$4.5 billion per year (this includes infrastructure such as LPG stoves). The richest countries have so far contributed approximately $130 million per year.

Clean-cooking metrics that include cooking fuels could help speed up progress. Although the WHO provides estimates at the country level of clean-fuel consumption, there are times when data is not available for certain countries. Some national surveys don't ask about the type of stoves that households use. Through a survey of best practices, a proper metric would determine the access to LPG fuel and electric stoves in every country. It could be used to measure how much cooking is done using LPG fuel and how much with biomass.

These data must be collected at the household level by national statistics agencies every year. One such project, the US Demographic & Health Surveys Program, provided data that showed the importance of girls' education, access to contraception, and basic health services.

The ongoing random controlled trial of LPG stoves in 3200 households in India and Guatemala, Peru, and Rwanda will provide more important data (T. Clasen and al. Environ. Health Perspect. 128, 47008; 2020). Select households are eligible for LPG stoves and an 18 month supply of LPG free. The health outcomes of children, such as their birth weight, incidence of severe pneumonia, and stunting, are measured. Older women are also monitored for high blood pressure. Low-temperature biomass burning results in particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and black carbon being detected in kitchens. This best-practice research is important to policymakers.

Although policymakers from wealthy countries may claim they support women's empowerment they are more interested in simple climate mitigation and coercing smaller countries to make concessions and cut costs than improving the lives and well-being of women in poverty. Clean cooking fuels are better for the environment that standard fuels. This is ironic. Although black carbon is a temporary pollutant, it has a warming effect on the climate that is many times greater than carbon dioxide.

No one benefits from pious, performative, blanket bans on fossil fuels. To better protect the climate and vulnerable populations in developing countries, a more intelligent and data-driven approach is required.

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