— By Vikash Singh (Acara Corps Fellow)

“About one-third of the world burns wood and other biomass for cooking, heating, and lighting, accounting for 13 percent of global energy consumption. When burned in traditional cooking stoves, the toxic emissions result in 1.6 million premature deaths each year, according to World Health Organization estimates. Children younger than five account for half of the fatalities.”

Last year at the end of December, India launched the National Biomass Cook stoves Initiative (NCI) to develop the next-generation cleaner biomass cook stoves and deploy them in all Indian households that currently use traditional cook stoves.  The initiative has set itself the lofty aim of providing cleaner energy services like clean sources of energy such as LPG but using the same solid biomass fuels commonly used today.

This initiative by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has been envisaged to be structured differently from the earlier National Program on Improved Chulhas, although it builds on the several successes of that program while also drawing lessons from the experience gained from its implementation.

The socio-economic and health implications of this form and scale of energy use are enormous. The starting point of the current exercise is the user. The solution on offer should, first and foremost, be easy to use and maintain and conform to local cooking habits across the country. Its adoption must make economic sense to the household. The program is conceived not as a handout to poorer households, but rather as an economically sustainable business solution.

This new initiative is also based on the recognition that that cook stove technology has improved considerably in the past few years. But further advances are still possible and, indeed essential. The aim is to achieve quality of energy services from cook stoves comparable to that from other clean energy sources such as LPG.

And on the climate front, many products of incomplete combustion that are emitted from traditional cook stoves have greenhouse implications—while each household might emit only a small amount, together these cook stoves can add up to a relatively sizeable contribution, although still only a fraction of the emissions from fossil fuels that supply energy for wealthier people. (There also remains some uncertainty about the exact global warming potential of black carbon, a greenhouse pollutant emitted, among other sources, from biomass combustion that recently has received increasing attention. But it is clear that shorter-lived pollutants from biomass combustion contribute to atmospheric heating on regional scales—and, therefore, their reduction will result in tangible national benefit.)

The approach that is being envisaged by this initiative focuses on all elements of the innovation chain, not only emphasizing development of cleaner combustion units and improved biomass-processing technologies, but also focusing on issues such as innovative delivery models. By partnering with academia, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, the program draws upon the strengths of these various groups. Such an approach, hopefully, will increase the likelihood of success of this initiative and also allow the development of technologies and delivery models that would find applications in other parts of the developing world.

The program, therefore, has the potential to serve as a flagship model for how to meet sustainable development and climate goals simultaneously. And this is exactly the kind of initiative that the government should be emphasizing in the global climate arena—one that puts sustainable development centre stage instead of focusing merely on “targets and timetables”, as our recent constructive position has done.

This promising new cook stove initiative, therefore, must be seen not only as an initiative that can help improve access to clean and high-quality energy services for the poor and the vulnerable, but also contribute to climate mitigation.