Research identifies where clean and efficient cookstoves can have biggest benefits in battling climate change

January 21, 2015 (Washington, DC) – New research published in Nature Climate Change this week analyzes the impact that gathering and burning wood for fuel has on deforestation and greenhouse pollution and identifies regions where the climate benefits from clean and efficient cookstoves will be greatest. The research was conducted by experts at Yale University and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and was funded by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (Alliance), with support from DFID, Malta, and Spain.

“It’s imperative that we have a strong evidence base to inform our work, and this research provides the most advanced data on the climate impacts of wood burning,” said Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. “These findings will help the Alliance target the areas where clean cooking technology can have the greatest impact, not only improving the effects on climate but also the health of millions of people living in hotspots.”

Traditional woodfuels used for cooking and heating, which include both firewood and charcoal, represent about 55 percent of global wood harvest, and supply roughly 2.8 billion people with their basic energy needs. The unsustainable harvesting and incomplete combustion of woodfuels contributes to environmental degradation, climate change, and unhealthy living conditions.
Large-scale adoption of efficient, low-emission cookstoves and fuels can mitigate climate change by reducing carbon dioxide from non-sustainable harvesting of biomass, and by lowering emissions from short-lived greenhouse gases and aerosols such as methane, carbon monoxide, and black carbon.
“Historical estimates of traditional woodfuels contribution to land cover change and anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been off the mark,” said Robert Bailis, Associate Professor at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “They've been driven by anecdotal evidence and often confounded with other impacts like demand for farmland and pasture. This assessment, using transparent methods and the best data currently available, provides a set of credible estimations of impacts everywhere that woodfuels are used.”

While the research suggests that 27-34 percent of woodfuel harvested was unsustainable on a global scale, there are huge variations at national and regional levels. 275 million people live in woodfuel ‘hotspots’, defined as regions where non renewability exceeds 50 percent. This includes nearly 60 percent in South Asia, 34 percent in Africa, and 6 percent in Latin America, notably Alliance focus countries Bangladesh, Kenya, and Uganda. Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, and Uganda are also among the countries with the highest per capita woodfuel consumption. India and China have the highest global woodfuel emissions overall, but have relatively lower per-capita emissions. Woodfuel contributions also account for 5-21 percent of total emissions in Nigeria.

Results will enable program developers to more accurately incorporate environmental concerns, including sustainability of woodfuel and potential carbon offsets, into their planning processes. In places where deforestation is a concern, and where the collection of firewood contributes to negative environmental impacts, this information can be used to identify areas where scaling clean cookstoves and fuels could provide the greatest benefits to the environment. Results suggest that up to 17 percent of global woodfuel emissions could be reduced with successful deployment and utilization of 100 million cleaner, more efficient cookstoves.  At US $11 per tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, these reductions could be worth over US $1b/year.

“While our study indicates that the global impact of traditional bioenergy harvesting on net carbon dioxide emissions is lower than previously thought, the total climate impact depends on emissions of other gases and pollutants, such as black carbon, that have not been adequately quantified yet,” said Omar Masera, Professor at the Centre for Research in Ecosystems at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.