Inefficient combustion of biomass in traditional cookstoves has detrimental climate and environment impacts regionally and globally. However, despite national-level efforts to promote switching to cleaner fuels, there has been a lack of rigorous research demonstrating the environmental and climate benefits of such programs. Two recent studies have taken strides to quantify the impact of clean fuel programs on forests and the net reduction in climate emissions. 

 

Study 1: Significant environmental payoffs of LPG cooking in India

The uptake of LPG in both rural and urban areas provides significant reduction of harmful climate forcing emissions, according to a recent study published by the Environmental Research Letters journal.

As a consequence of both policies and socio-economic developments, researchers found that LPG access in urban India increased 17% and 5% in urban and rural regions, respectively, between 2001 and 2011. In “Environmental payoffs of LPG cooking in India,” researchers used data collected in that same time period to estimate the net emissions impacts and displaced fuelwood of the observed transition from traditional biomass cooking to LPG stoves. Taking into account both Kyoto [CO2 and CH4] and non-Kyoto [short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon] climate-active emissions, this increase in LPG access contributed to an estimated net emissions reduction of 6.73 megatons of CO2 equivalent (6.73 MtCO2e) and 7.2 million tons of displaced fuelwood in 2011. The study provides the first national level estimate of the emissions impacts from household level transition to clean fuels that accounts for fuel stacking and the renewability of fuelwood.

This research emphasizes the importance of accounting for fuelwood renewability and considering the impacts of non-Kyoto climate pollutants to accurately measure the climate emissions as a result of transitioning to alternative fuels, and should be considered carefully in policy making and analysis. When also accounting for SLCPs, the study found an increase of the national net climate emissions reductions of 55% (3.05 MtCO2e vs.  6.73MtCO2e).

“Even if we assume all fuelwood is renewable and count only the set of greenhouse gases included in the Kyoto Protocol [CO2 and CH4], which excludes short-lived emissions like black carbon, we find no net climate impact of this transition. This is because cooking with LPG is much more efficient, and burning wood emits methane—also a greenhouse gas,” says Deavyani Singh, the study’s lead author.

 

Study 2: Regeneration of degraded forests linked to clean fuels

Programs to provide alternative energy sources such as biogas for cooking have been shown to reduce pressure on forests from fuelwood collection, according to new research published online in the journal for Global Ecology & Conservation. In “Impact of biogas interventions on forest biomass and regeneration in southern India,” researchers report that forest plots near villages with biogas interventions had greater forest biomass than similar plots near villages without biogas.

Using an existing intervention implemented in 2005, researchers tested whether increased biogas use in communities that previously harvested wood from nearby forests resulted in increased biomass, increased regeneration, and different species composition than comparable forests bordering villages where such an intervention did not take place. The results of the study showed increased biomass in forest plots near villages where more than 20% of households had biogas. These forests also contained more diversity of saplings, showing better long-term potential for regeneration.

This study suggests that alternative fuel interventions can measurably cause higher biomass and regeneration in areas with forest impacts from fuelwood harvesting.  Solid ground support contributed greatly to the success of the biogas intervention. Researchers found that the biogas units were regularly used and well-maintained even after 10 years, indicating that positive forest changes can occur when alternative fuels are provided and used consistently. The researchers caution that biogas interventions that are poorly implemented, implemented under drought conditions, or in areas that are less degraded may not have the same results.