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Why clean cooking hasn't saved the climate
At last week's climate conference, Indian officials had to strike a careful balance between being the world's fourth largest carbon emitter and being the home of millions of the world's poorest people. - photo by Daniel Lombardi
Throughout the Paris climate talks, India maintained a firm position that raising its vast population out of poverty was its top priority, according to the New York Times. That meant India, the worlds third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would pursue policies that help its poorest people even if that increases its contribution to global warming.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) one major driver of climate change around the world, and especially in India, is the 3 billion people who cook on open fires with dirty fuels like wood, dung and coal. The dark smoke particles produced by these fuels absorb sunlight and contribute to global warming, but it's unclear if petroleum-based fuels would reduce global warming.

The biomass fuels Indians cook with also pose significant health risks to the women who typically spend long periods inside small smoky rooms preparing meals. Globally, WHO attributes 4.3 million premature deaths, mostly of children, to the household air pollution caused by biomass fuels. The inhalation of smoke and soot causes pneumonia, strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Switching the 55 percent of India's population using these biofuels over to liquefied petroleum gas, the most accessible alternative in India, would have dramatic health benefits, but might not help reduce carbon emissions. The New York Times reported this week that switching Indians to gas might actually increase carbon emissions slightly.

Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times that it would be wrong that the worlds poor should bear the burden of lowering carbon emissions when essentially minuscule increases would have such huge benefits.

Smith argued that the health benefits of replacing biomass fuels with something safer outweighed the possible detriment to the climate especially when compared to the carbon emitted by the United States. It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate, it is you and me, he said.

In 2010, Hillary Clinton said that providing poor women clean cook stoves could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines, according to The Washington Post.

Regardless of the good intentions of efforts to provide poor communities in developing countries with alternative fuel appliances, convincing people to change their traditional cooking methods has been a difficult task, and most Indians may continue using biomass fuels for some time.

Three decades of efforts to promote both modern fuels and improved biomass stoves have seen only sporadic success, says a World Bank report published last year.

Cultural preference has been one setback to implementing the new technology. The Stockholm Environment Institute surveyed Indian women who said they preferred to cook with a clay oven using a mix of firewood and dung because of the taste the fuels leave on the food.

Women who do adopt the new cook stoves tend to continue using biomass fuels in addition to the new technology. "The exclusive use of new stove technologies in homes has been rare, according to researchers.

Another challenge is affordability of stoves and their fuel. Ample labor and time make gathering biomass fuels cheap in rural India. Liquefied petroleum gas fuels, on the other hand, are expensive and often unavailable in remote areas.

This is where stoves have always struggled, the director of the Mulago Foundation, Kevin Starr, told the Post. The affordable ones are inadequate, and the good ones are unaffordable.