Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


In my last post to Nonprofit Chronicles, I wrote about longstanding efforts by governments, NGOs and companies to get cookstoves to some of the 3 billion people who prepare their food and heat their homes using smoky, open fires. The post generated some thoughtful pushback, including an email from Jacob Moss, a longtime EPA executive who knows as much as anyone about cookstoves. He gave me permission to reprint it, below.

I’m still trying to work out what I think about cookstoves, and particularly about the focus of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership formed in 2010 with the goal of getting 100 million clean or efficient cookstoves out to those who need them by 2020. My post was critical of cookstoves that burn biomass–wood, charcoal, dung or agricultural waste–because they don’t meet World Health Organization guidelines (which are admittedly strict). I quoted, approvingly, several people who argued that the alliance should be more focused on clean fuels — LPG, ethanol, electricity and biogas — than on cookstoves, per se.

One challenge is defining precisely the problem that cookstoves are trying to solve. The serious health consequences of cooking over open fires? Greenhouse gas emissions? Conventional air pollution? Poverty, which is made worse by the costs of inefficiently burning wood or charcoal? Put simply: If cookstoves are the answer, what’s the question? In Jacob’s email, he argues that biomass cookstoves, while not ideal, deliver meaningful health, environmental and economic benefits to some of the poorest people in the world:

You make some good points, and lay out many of the difficulties with succeeding in solving the “cookstoves” problem.  But I feel as though in your efforts to get to those nuances, you missed some important elements of the bigger picture.

As a sector, we know how hard this is – but given the scale of impact on all dimensions (health, economic, gender, environment), we have to try.  We’re not going to ever solve it overnight.  From an EPA perspective, no large-scale air pollution issue ever is solved like that.  Think about the stratospheric ozone layer, acid rain, vehicle pollution, and ambient air quality standards, or even a program such as ENERGY STAR.  These efforts are enormous success stories, but they each involved decades of significant, but incremental steps to get where we are today.  Addressing household air pollution will be no different.

The debate over very clean biomass stoves vs. truly clean fuels glosses over all the subtlety embedded in that.  Are truly clean cooking solutions the ultimate goal?  Absolutely.  Are much cleaner biomass stoves a complete solution to household air pollution?  Of course not.  We know that in much greater detail now than ever before, but we’ve always known that burning biomass in an enclosed space is not going to lead to truly clean air.  But does that mean all biomass stoves are a waste of time?  Of course not.  First, they will provide – that is, demonstrably good ones that women want to use will provide – real and meaningful benefits to women and families today.  Cutting fuel use by a third or in half will cut the time and burden of collecting fuel accordingly.  Or if wood or charcoal is purchased, it will save money accordingly – typically a large part of a household budget.  Such benefits are very important.  Health is certainly my primary motivation for this work, but it is important to keep things in perspective – it is not the only reason for this work.

But even with a health lens, advanced biomass stoves that are used should provide meaningful health benefits.  Kirk Smith’s lab developed the leading tool (called “HAPIT”) which shows this.  It’s true in part because for some health impacts, cutting smoke by, say, 50% will yield meaningful reductions in risk.  And it’s true in part because even for those health impacts that are very non-linear on the dose-response (so a 50% reduction in exposure only cuts the health impact by, say, 20%), when you have very large populations involved, the resultant benefits are non-trivial.  So, even if the Alliance were to only get mid-range smoke exposure reductions of 50%, if you compile benefits across 100 million homes (about 500 million people), the health benefits start to add up quite significantly.

That doesn’t mean that these intermediate solutions are sufficient for health, or that we shouldn’t strive for the cleanest solutions wherever practical.  But it does imply that these solutions are an important step in the longer term approach to truly clean.  Just as vehicle standards progressed over decades from initial steps to catalytic converters to unleaded gas to low sulfur gas and advanced emissions controls (note the corresponding fuel-technology angle) to even cleaner recent standards that also address carbon pollution.  And keep in mind that most of these mid-range stoves only last a couple years, so the opportunity to iterate towards progressively cleaner solutions is ongoing – a decision today doesn’t last for 10-50 years like it does for a car, heavy duty truck, or power plant.

All that to say, I think the Alliance’s strategy of advancing clean fuels wherever possible is right, and I think their decision to promote quality intermediate solutions elsewhere is also right.  I do think there is value in demonstrably cleaner and more efficient (but not truly clean) biomass stoves.  And I think that even if the 100 million homes the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves aspires to reach were using only those stoves, the world would be vastly better off.  But if you only hold out for the best, not only will you miss important benefits along the way, you may fail to make any progress in large regions.  You may also not create the infrastructure (business, human, behavioral) that will eventually enable the truly cleaner solutions.

I’ll also add that if the Alliance didn’t have a bold goal, with big commitments behind it, the sector would be vastly less far along in the road towards clean – without awareness of all the risks, without emerging standards, without much of the research that tells how to most effectively solve these risks (most of the U.S. government’s investment under the Alliance to date has been in this space), without financing, and without the commitment of many developing country governments to address this within their borders.  We’ve made stunning progress, even as we know we have a very long ways to go before declaring success.  But it’s not all or nothing.

I mostly agree, although I wish the sector had more evidence that biomass stoves are replacing open fires. As Jacob pointed out to me when we met, those of us in rich countries don’t rely on a single cooking device. I’ve got a gas stove (with four burners), a microwave, a coffee maker and a toaster. Will giving or selling a biomass stove to a poor woman lead her to stop using an open fire? Or will she use both? Most experts think there’s lots of “stove stacking” (i.e., using more than one stove) going on. That would limit the health benefits of the improved stove. It’s all devilishly complicated.

That said, I admire Jacob’s persistent efforts to attack the problem of household air pollution. He’s a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, which you can read about here.

2 thoughts on “Jacob Moss: In defense of biomass cookstoves

  1. Laura Asiala says:

    Bravo Jacob! Thanks Marc! Another great and insightful post. Why should the quest for clean cookstoves be held to a standard that no other clean energy has to meet? Let’s reinforce the progress, and hold up the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as an absolutely miraculous form of the most difficult kind of partnership. Folks like Leslie Cordes, Radha Muthiah, Kris Balderston, Jacob Moss should get all kinds of kudos for staying the course. And it’s also instructive to go back and see what made that partnership come together and WORK!


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