Beyond Fire: Why we have to rethink the future path towards sustainable cooking in the Global South

In the Global South, the role of renewable electricity for the cooking sector has been widely neglected as too expensive, too complicated and too different from the tradition of cooking with wood fuel. While this was true for many years, the preconditions for cooking with electricity from solar and wind have changed entirely.

Inefficient cooking fuels and technologies are particularly affecting women and children, who work an estimated 8-9 hours per week in collecting and transporting cooking fuels, and will be most exposed to the toxic fumes. | ©Nathalie Bertrams

By electrifying the cooking sector with renewable sources in rural areas in Africa, Asia, and South America, millions of people's lives could be saved while helping to limit global warming to 1.5C. Current exposure to household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels causes 4.3 million premature deaths per year. Inefficient cooking fuels and technologies are particularly affecting women and children since they are the ones most exposed to the toxic fumes. Across the world, upwards of 3 billion people rely on biomass for fuel. Firewood, charcoal or animal dung are often employed to meet household energy needs for cooking, resulting in seriously adverse consequences for the environment, health, and economic development within this substantial population. Turning cooking with electricity into an affordable and technically reasonable option could therefore help a great deal in addressing these challenges.

The findings of a new report launched today at the Climate Conference in Morocco by the World Future Council and Hivos, show that the cost of renewable energy technologies continues to decline. And it is this decline in cost that creates a greater opportunity for cleaner and more modern technologies. The report comes at a crucial moment as the United Nations currently gather in Marrakech to identify and agree on future pathways to save the climate and bring sustainable energy for all. It suggests a future pathway for cooking in urban and rural areas that literally goes 'beyond fire'.

©Nathalie Bertrams | Click here to read the full report

Protecting the environment, scaling-up access to electricity, and fostering economic development are in fact complementary goals when it comes to cooking - which represents the single largest source of energy consumption in many developing countries, far greater than either electricity, or transport. The most up to date cost estimations of various cooking technologies suggest that using electricity from renewable energy is already 'within reach'. The report has calculated the costs of producing a unit of thermal energy (in GJ) via each of the main cooking options under consideration. At the core of this calculation is that the estimated useful energy needed for cooking per person is 1GJ per year. The cost of meeting cooking needs with cleaner, modern sources of energy ranges between 0,90 Euro/per person/per day to below 0,20 Euro.

So far, the majority of governments and international donors seeking to step up their involvement in addressing the problems caused by a reliance on wood and charcoal for cooking have focused their efforts towards improved cook stove technologies. These technologies can certainly play a crucial role in addressing the challenge of sustainable cooking. However, they are, at best, an interim solution. The harvesting of wood and production of charcoal continue to have significant negative impacts on the environment and on human health. The sheer power of demographics will require huge amounts that are incompatible with more sustainable production options. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, the population is projected to almost triple by 2060, reaching approximately 2.7 billion. Failing to fundamentally change the energy mix in the cooking sector is clearly no longer an option. We need a breakthrough transition towards truly long-term, sustainable solutions which do not leave anyone behind.