Why extinguishing Africa's dirty cooking fuel crisis is a global priority

By Amanda Morrow with RFI

The scourge of dirty cooking fuels in Africa – an invisible killer for half a million women and children each year – stirred up pledges of €2.2 billion in Paris this week as oil and gas companies joined efforts to bring about access to healthy cooking methods by 2030.  

Four in five Africans – mostly women and girls – cook their food over open fires and primitive stoves that are powered by polluting fuels such as wood, charcoal, kerosene and animal waste.  

Three-quarters of people rely on these smoky, rudimentary cooking systems for their meals. Much of the time they're used inside small and enclosed spaces. 

Among the harmful toxins released: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter.

The result, according to the World Bank, is the premature deaths of about 600,000 Africans a year – making dirty cooking an even bigger killer than malaria. 

Then there are the hundreds of billions of euros in associated health and climate impacts, including increased carbon emissions and deforestation. 

Forgotten issue

“This summit has delivered an emphatic commitment to an issue that has been ignored by too many people, for too long,” said Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which convened the Paris event, held on Tuesday.  

Pledges came from the European Union, the African Development Bank, countries like the US, investment bodies and oil and gas companies including TotalEnergies and Shell. 

Some 2.3 billion people around the world lack access to cooking with clean fuels (biogas, ethanol and liquified petroleum gas) and electric stoves.

But despite the scale of the problem, Birol has said that fixing it is relatively uncomplicated. 

“The barriers to delivering on the promise of clean cooking for all are not technical,” he wrote in a report last year. 

“What is encouraging and disturbing, in equal measure, is that this huge environmental, economic and human challenge could be solved with relatively modest investment.” 

Women hit hard

Access to clean cooking fuel has also been labelled a gender equality issue given the hours women spend each day collecting wood – time that could be spent on work or education. 

The Clean Cooking Alliance, a US-based non-profit, estimates that women and children in developing countries spend up to 20 hours a week gathering wood to prepare meals for their families. 

Meanwhile the global economic cost of that lost time is put at $800 billion a year. 

The IEA estimates that Africa needs $4 billion in yearly investments to transition away from dirty cooking methods by 2030.  

Birol has suggested the sale of carbon credits could help to meet that goal, while the IEA would ensure “good quality” projects to avoid greenwashing.