Billions of people around the world rely on traditional cookstoves and solid fuels, which adds to the global climate crisis due to increased carbon emissions, besides impacting household health. A recent study has found that addressing supply chain issues and facilitating price discounts can dramatically improve the adoption of improved cookstoves.

Government records show that around 100 million of the total 240 million households in India are deprived of LPG connections, increasing the use of firewood, coal and dung cakes as the primary source of cooking.

The smoke from burning such fuels causes household pollution and adversely affects the health of women and children, causing several respiratory diseases. Efforts of women and children to collect firewood is an added burden.

A new study by researchers from India and the US states that three billion people around the world rely on traditional stoves. It describes the triple burden of this pattern of resource use: it “exacerbates the global climate crisis via increased carbon emissions and forest degradation or deforestation via daily fuelwood collection and exposes billions to toxic air pollution generated by dirty fuels”.

The widespread adoption of improved cookstoves, which use cleaner fuels or burn solid fuels more efficiently, may ease this triple burden and deliver triple wins by improving household health, local environments and global climate.

However, despite the promise of better health and environmental benefits, the adoption and use of improved cookstoves remain disappointingly low, finds the study. Poor households in rural settings will rarely pay for, or use these new stoves.

The study advocates the adoption of practices like upgrading the supply chain, careful market analysis and offering price rebates, which can increase purchase and adoption of improved cookstoves by as much as 50% in rural India.

The study, conducted in three phases over a period of five years, involved nearly 1,000 households in the Indian Himalayan region. It included control households where typical practices of a local supplier – a combination of delivery, retail, marketing, sales and finance – were mimicked, and intervention households, where options like price rebates and improved supply chains were implemented.

More than half the intervention households, where options like rebates on improved cookstoves were offered bought improved cookstoves, as against zero purchase in control villages.

Demand was higher for electric stoves as compared to improved biomass cookstoves by a factor of two, as the survey households liked the lack of smoke, speed of cooking, portability and attractiveness of the stove.

“This preference for electric stoves highlighted the lack of a steady source of electricity,” note the authors in a press release. “In India, rural electrification rates have been rising rapidly, growing from 57% to 83% between 2005 and 2015.”

The efficiency of the supply chain was another crucial factor. Even with a negligible price discount, improved supply chains “induced a 28 percentage-point increase in improved cookstove ownership”, said the study.

SK Pattanayak from the US-based Sanford School of Public Policy of Duke University said that the main constraints for people shifting to improved cookstoves are “lack of information, insufficient income and inability to relate to environmental or climate issues”.

The Indian government has a special scheme to cut down the dependence on solid fuel. Credit: Manojk/Wikimedia Commons

Price, a critical factor

In May 2016, the National Democratic Alliance government had launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that aimed at providing 50 million LPG connections to below poverty line families with a support of Rs 1,600 per connection over three years, by 2019. The target was later revised to 80 million connections by 2020.

Though the scheme has received a lot of appreciation, reports have repeatedly highlighted that refilling of cylinders is a huge issue due to the high price. In fact, to address this, the government was even considering to launch a scheme on solar cookers for the marginalised communities.

SK Pattanayak, who is also the lead author of the study, told Mongabay that price is a critical factor. “Price is a major issue not just for initial adoption [getting LPG connection, buying the new stoves], but also for sustained use – refilling the cylinders and maintaining the stoves,” said Pattanayak. “There are no easy answers, but for sure the policy response of just an initial boost or subsidy is not enough. It has to last beyond that initial adoption – more technical help and some financial help.”

Asked if some kind of incentive or subsidy is required to push the large-scale adoption, he replied in the affirmative. “Large scale adoption serves greater societal good by avoiding all kinds of terrible environmental and health outcomes and we will definitely need subsidies,” he said. “Many poor, who most need to change behaviours are least likely to be able to change behaviours. So they need some help. The risk is that the middle class or upper class in villages will grab the subsidy – so targeting and indexing will be key. Critically, the government in India has gotten better at it and so we should be able to succeed.”

According to the Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan, as on June 19, the oil marketing companies have released more than 72.3 million new LPG connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana.

“Oil marketing companies have reported that till May, 16.7 million and 14.5 million Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana beneficiaries have purchased the refilled LPG cylinders four and five times respectively,” Pradhan told the Indian Parliament while replying to a query on June 24, 2019. “Oil marketing companies have also reported that nearly 86% of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana beneficiaries who are at least one year old have returned for the second refill.”

The petroleum minister emphasised that adoption and use of LPG on a sustained basis by a beneficiary of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana involves behavioural change. “The use of LPG by Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana beneficiary household depends on several factors which include food habits, cooking habits, price of LPG, availability of free firewood and cow dung,” said Pradhan.

Experts agreed that what is needed is a behavioural change and emphasised that a concerted and customised outreach programme is the need of the hour.

“What is required is focussed advocacy and outreach programme centred around health exposures and increased health and economic risks for families,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based environment think-tank. “This is needed to encourage people to shift and continue to use clean fuels. The challenge of the ongoing programme is ensuring reliable and timeliness of refill and its continuous use. At the end of the day, it is about economics. We need a more effective transfer of subsidy from the rich to the poor. But the campaign needs to address a mixed fuel approach where families keep LPG for backup while using solid fuels which is very cheap or free. The campaign must also leverage health care services for the poor to promote awareness.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.