U.N. cooks up plan to fight poverty: cookstoves

The U.S. pledges more than $50 million at the UN 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit to bring cleaner burning stoves into the world's poorest kitchens.

Eliminating extreme poverty by 2015 is a tall order, requiring better education, health care, and peace just about everywhere where there are people. But according to the UN's Millennium Project, at the top of that list is energy access.

About one in five people don't have electricity, according to a recent report.

In New York this week, the UN 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit is addressing poverty, disease, human rights, biodiversity loss, gender inequality, among others of humanity's ills. One answer to helping relieve several of these problems is energy, and more specifically, cookstoves.

Nearly 3 billion don't have clean energy to cook their dinner. They burn wood, charcoal, peat and other biomass, often indoors.

The new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hopes to place clean-cooking stoves in 100 million homes by 2020. Kicking off the donations at more than $50 million was the United States.

While most clean energy initiatives focus on outdoor pollution, a driving force behind this one is indoor pollution: the smoke, soot and other particulate matter arising from inefficient stoves. According to the Alliance, Each year the medical conditions that result from chronically breathing this dirty air prematurely kills almost 2 million people, usually women and children. This is about twice as many people who die annually from malaria, says the EPA, which is spending $6 million over the next five years on testing stove designs and their affect on health.

Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, in a statement:

Energy is the essential enabler of the Millennium Development Goals. Broader access to electricity and modern fuels doesn’t just provide light or move machinery. It powers education, health care, and prosperity, and through sustainable technologies, such as solar panels and clean and efficient cookstoves, lives are saved and our environment protected.

Cooking a meal shouldn’t be hazardous to your health. Cookstoves that reduce fuel consumption and operate cleanly will save lives, prevent disease, provide more time for women and girls to devote to schooling and earn money and reduce environmental degradation. That addresses almost all of the MDGs.

It seems simple enough. People need to eat. Inhaling smoke is bad for you. Cutting down trees is bad for the environment. Give the people new stoves! Problem solved. But it's trickier than that. Stoves, used for every meal everyday, only last a few years. And people don't fuel or fill them with the same things, nor do they use them the same way.

Andy Revkin writes in Dot Earth:

In many places, nonprofit groups have distributed stoves that end up being used to store grain or dumped because they don’t fit established preferences. (I’ve heard that solar cookers, for instance, have been unpopular in parts of Africa where women, to avoid heat, cook before the sun is high in the sky.)

So the initiative is also calling for building local markets for efficient stoves, stoves that people will actually use and can afford, and in some cases, learn to make themselves. (The image above shows women making stoves in West Darfur, as part of a USAID project to lessen the women's need to collect firewood, which can expose them to danger.)

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Image: USAID

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