photo: Procsilas Moscas via flickr
Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to announce a $50 million pledge of seed money, distributed over five years, to help the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves provide 100 million clean-burning biomass cookstoves by 2020 to people in Africa, Asia and South America. This may seem like an obscure issue to many TreeHugger readers, but when it comes to help improve the lives of women and forests in many developing nations, and the climate for all of us, this is a very big deal. Thankfully, the issue is getting some more attention. Madeleine Bunting, writing in The Guardian has the sentiment exactly right when she says, "One of the most powerful women in the world is talking about cooking stoves. Thank God."
Why invoke the divine here?
Nearly 2 Million People Die Annually From Cookstove Pollution
Let's start with the top-line human health stat: the UN says every year 1.9 million people, mostly women and children, die from ailments caused by exposure to smoke from inefficient biomass cooking stoves.
That's a lot of people killed simply because they can't afford a stove that costs less than what many TreeHugger readers would spend on a single meal at a restaurant--as the New York Times points out a $20 stove can be 50% more efficient than what's currently being used. For $100 a stove that reduces harmful emissions by 95% and use markedly less fuel can be purchased.
What fuels these cookstoves? In some places it's dried animal dung--eminently renewable and frankly a good use of natural resources, but still a health hazard indoors--but it's also wood. Gathered and cut from forests, often carried long distances, again most often by women, this contributes to rampant deforestation in some places and is a burden that can be lessened by stoves which use fuel more efficiently.
Though these girls appear to be carrying fuel not cut fresh, rather gathered from material already fallen, that's not always the case. But the physical burden remains the same. Photo: Diganta Talukdar via flickr.
Deforestation Reduces Biodiversity, Exacerbates Natural Disasters
That deforestation has several impacts, beyond the immediate burden on the people who have to carry it (like having to carry water from far off wells, this is major quality of life issue).
At the most basic level is habitat loss for animals and loss of habitat for native plants, some of which are critically useful medicine and other uses.
Moving up is erosion occurring because trees have been removed which previously stabilized the soil; and we've recently seen what happens when torrential rainstorms hit deforested mountainsides in Pakistan.
Then there's the impact on the climate: Though the statistics about exactly big the impact of deforestation on climate change is--through both releasing stored carbon and reducing carbon sinks--it's safe to say that it's slightly less than all of the world's transportation. In other words, it's huge. It would be stretch to say replacing old cookstoves with new ends deforestation, not by a long shot, but in some areas of the world this is very significant.
Soot Accelerates Glacier Melting, Effect on Warming is More Complicated
Beyond the effect of cookstove smoke on people in the immediate vicinity, the black carbon soot has a climate impact as well.
Recent research shows that soot falling on Himalayan glaciers is a major factor in accelerated melting observed in the region. When the soot coats the snow and ice in changes the reflectivity and accelerates melting. Glacier melting means changes in water availability, potentially causing flooding in the mid-term and scarcity/seasonality in the long-term.
Black carbon soot also has an effect on warming temperatures. Very new research (as in released yesterday) by NASA says, with the caveat that more research is needed, that though soot does increase temperatures, it also changes cloud production. On balance, this may offset much of the warming caused by soot, but it varies from place to place, with some places seeing decreased clouds and other places seeing increases. This corresponds with other research showing that soot can change precipitation patters, and in India has been linked with extreme precipitation events in some areas and drought in others. While still other studies on black carbon soot point out that black carbon from fossil fuel burning has a greater climate than from biomass, all in all, cutting black carbon pollution is decidedly a good thing for the climate.
Is $50 million enough to solve the problem. No way. But is it a good start for a problem that can be dealt with incrementally? Oh yeah.
UPDATE: Higher dollar amount pledged + EPA contributes
Once the final announcement was made, it turns out preliminary expectations were slightly too low. In total the US commitment to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves project will be $53.32 million over five years. Of that the Environmental Protection Agency will be supplying $6 million.
Touting its involvement, EPA head Lisa Jackson stated, "EPA is proud to partner with the State Department, our administration colleagues, the United Nations Foundation, and the other alliance partners to address one of the greatest environmental health risks facing the international community today. As a first step in this new partnership, EPA will invest $6 million over the next five years to enhance efforts at stove testing and evaluation, cookstove design innovation and assessments of health benefits."
Like this? Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.
More on Air Pollution:
India Launches New Biomass Cookstove Program - Big Human Health & GLobal Warming Benefits
New Biomass Cookstoves Significantly Reduce Fuel Requirements, Indoor Air Pollution
Black Carbon Soot's Climate Warming Effect May Be Canceled by Its Increasing Cloud Production
Black Carbon Pollution From Fossil Fuels Causes Twice the Warming As Burning Biomass
Black Soot Coating Himalayan Glaciers is Accelerating Melting