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March 19, 2011 | Opinions Feature Article

Sustainable energy access for Africa: a win-win solution for climate and development

CleanCook photo
CleanCook photo

*By Fiona Lambe and Patricia Tella

Supporting developing countries to scale-up access to sustainable energy for cooking will not only bring positive effects for climate change; it will improve the health and economy of the world's most vulnerable households. What's more, the cost of achieving universal energy access in the coming decades is surprisingly low.

It is difficult to imagine, but right now approximately two billion people, one third of humanity, do not have access to energy for their most basic needs such as cooking, lighting and heating. Not coincidently, this is the same one third that is currently living in extreme poverty. Access to clean and safe energy for cooking is essential for human development. No country in modern times has managed to reduce poverty and achieve economic development without increasing access to modern forms of energy. Without a massive scale up in access to clean and safe energy, the world's poorest regions will remain trapped in poverty.

For most Swedes, cooking is an enjoyable pastime and something that is normally taken for granted. We just flip a switch; turn a knob, and the stove turns own. However, for two thirds of the worlds' population, this fundamental task is both a tiresome burden and a major health risk.

In Sub Saharan Africa, four out of five households do all their cooking over an open fire or using an inefficient wood or charcoal burning stove which exposes them to high levels of smoke and health damaging chemicals. They cook this way because they have very limited choice. Electricity is either unavailable - only 28% of SSA (excluding South Africa) is electrified - or unaffordable. Since the task of cooking usually falls to women and girls, it is they who face daily exposure to levels of pollution which are estimated to be the equivalent of consuming two packets of cigarettes a day (WHO, 2006).

The health impact of this exposure is devastating. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) smoke from domestic fires kills nearly two million people each year and sickens millions more. This is more than three people per minute. It is a death toll almost as great as that caused by dirty water and poor sanitation and AIDS, and greater than malaria. Without systematic changes, household biomass use will result in an estimated 8.1 million Lower Respiratory Infection (LRI) deaths among young children in sub-Saharan Africa alone between 2000 and 2030 (Bailis, Ezzati, Kammen, 2007, p 6).

These are indeed startling figures. So why isn't more being done to tackle this problem? If indoor air pollution is responsible for more deaths globally than malaria each year, why don't we see a global push for energy access similar in profile and funding to the global anti-malaria campaigns?

One answer is that until recently, there has been a marked lack of political will to acknowledge and tackle this glaring problem. This was made blatantly clear in September 2000 when heads of state from all over the world met to agree on eight specific targets for combating poverty, disease, illiteracy, hunger and environmental degradation. The deadline for achieving these eight ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is 2015 - just five years from now, but we are far from on track to meeting these targets. A major reason for this is that Energy Access was completely left out of the picture. Amazingly, there is no Millennium Development Goal on Energy, despite the fact that lack of access to clean and safe energy, especially for cooking, is a major impediment to meeting every one of the MDGs.

Now, with just over five years to go, we are beginning to see some momentum and a new global push to get energy access firmly on the development agenda. One major reason for this about turn is recognition of the enormous potential for so called “co-benefits”– additional or “bonus” opportunities for tackling climate change through projects designed to address the household energy problem in developing countries.

Cooking stoves and climate change
The same tiny particles from cooking fires that are linked to more than two million deaths annually are also contributing to climate change. Black carbon or soot is thought to be the second biggest contributor to global warming after CO2, and although dirty diesel engines, power plants and other more advanced technologies also produce black carbon, cooking fires appear to be the largest source of soot in developing nations. Several studies have indicated that reducing black carbon emissions may be among the most accessible, quick and cost effective actions to mitigate climate warming over the coming decades (e.g. Hansen et al.; Jacobson, 2002; Bond and Sun, 2005).

Replacing inefficient cooking devices with cleaner stoves and fuels, while immediately improving the health and well being of the users, could also have a significant positive impact on global warming in a relatively short time frame. This is because, unlike carbon dioxide which can remain in the atmosphere for many decades, black carbon particles generally fall from the sky in days or weeks.

A wide range of new and improved cooking stoves, as well as cleaner fuels are currently being field tested – many of these show great potential for addressing the climate and health problems. One success story is that of the ethanol fuelled “CleanCook” stove, originally Swedish technology, in Ethiopia. Ethiopian NGO, Gaia Association has pilot tested these stoves in households in Addis Ababa and in a number of refugee camps with very positive results. Households are ready to switch completely to ethanol (which is locally produced from sugar cane residues) and the project will soon enter a commercial phase where the Swedish stoves will be produced and sold locally. See the attached photo.

Although a global effort to roll out improved household energy programmes poses a number of challenges, relatively speaking, it is not an expensive project. The IEA, in its recently published World Energy Outlook estimated that universal access to clean cooking facilities could be achieved through additional cumulative investment on $56 million in 210-2030 (IEA, 2010). This investment is equivalent to 0.2% of the total projected global energy investment to 2030.

There is now widespread consensus among policy makers and the development community that addressing the energy access problem is a matter of urgency. In September 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was officially launched by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is a $60 million dollar public-private partnership to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. The Alliance's goal is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.

2010 also saw the launch of the Energy for All 2030 Project, an EU-wide initiative aimed at raising policy and public awareness about the issue of energy access for meeting the MDGs in SSA. In Sweden, Energy for All 2030 is being led by the Stockholm Environment Institute which is playing a leading role in highlighting these issues for Swedish and European Policy makers and supporting a platform for dialogue between African and European civil society. The SEI, together with UK partner, Practical Action recently met with the EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs to push for more policy focus and financing at the EU level for the goal of universal energy access. This political momentum is set to continue over the coming years and particularly in the run up to 2015 and the deadline for meeting the MDGs.

It remains to be seen if the energy access targets can be met within the given timeframes. But there is hope. Prioritizing energy access as a key driver of social and economic development is undoubtedly the first step towards achieving universal energy access and there, at least, we have agreement. Now we need to see this consensus and support translate into action for the worlds' poorest.

Energy for all 2030 is a Europe-wide project calling for more and better funding from the European Commission for energy access projects in Sub Saharan Africa. Support the Energy for All 2030 Project. Go to and pledge your support to make universal energy access a reality by 2030.

The authors are Associate Researchers at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Stockholm Sweden. They can be contacted through their e-mails: Fiona Lambe ([email protected]) and Patricia Tella ([email protected])

Lord Aikins Adusei
Lord Aikins Adusei

The author has authored 127 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author's column: LordAikinsAdusei

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Lord Aikins Adusei and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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