Study Calls on China to Modernise Cooking Fuels
In a new study of access to energy supplies used for cooking in China, KTH researcher Brijesh Mainali calls for a transition to improved stoves and clean, modern fuels in the world’s most populous nation. He says relatively modest investments could bring substantial gains in health and reduced climate impact if solutions are tailored to rural and urban users at different income levels.
Although its three-decade experiment with market reforms has brought China to the brink of economic superpower status, many families still cook on outdated, inefficient stoves burning low-grade fuels such as coal, wood, agricultural residues and dung. While these traditional fuels are used disproportionately by the rural poor, they also reach into the cities and up the income ladder. The health and environmental impacts are severe.
“We’ve known for a long time that indoor pollution from traditional fuels causes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, eye diseases and even infant mortality and cancer, and that women and children suffer the most,” says Brijesh Mainali, a PhD candidate in energy and climate studies at the KTH School of Industrial Engineering and Management. “Even if these fuels are inexpensive, the burden of gathering firewood or hauling coal also falls mainly on women and children. Then there’s outdoor air pollution and China’s contribution to global warming. Cheap fuel isn’t so cheap.”
A recent paper by Mainali and co-authors Shonali Pachauri, and Yu Nagai in the American Institute of Physics' Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy estimates that some 17 per cent of city dwellers and a quarter of rural Chinese will still be using dirty, inconvenient cooking fuels by 2030 — despite ambitious government efforts to distribute more efficient stoves and encourage new biogas production facilities as well as distribution networks for modern gas fuels.
There is no single solution to improving these projections, Mainali says. Instead, the paper shows how shifts in policies on fuel price support, access to credit, and technology subsidies will play out in adoption of modern fuels across urban and rural populations and across a range of income levels. The key, the authors say, is to recognise that different groups calculate benefits in different ways. A middle-class city dweller, for example, could have a higher income than his cousin in the countryside, but his higher costs for housing and transportation might still put the upfront expense of a switch to modern fuel out of reach even if the long-term payoff is attractive.
“Our projections of adoption rates for modern fuels are based not only on income and technology costs, but also on lifespan of the technology, efficiency, fuel prices, credit costs and inconvenience costs,” Mainali says. “Different consumers discount the future value of money for a long-term investment and the price they put on the inconveniences associated with traditional fuel use.”
Mainali’s analysis suggests that universal access to modern fuels in urban areas could be achieved by 2030 at a fairly modest cost of $2.39 per person. The price tag for reaching the vast Chinese hinterlands is considerably higher — $10.75 per person — but still not excessive in the context of China’s complex web of fuel price support programmes and subsidies.
“Reductions in the adverse impacts on health and emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as general improvements in socio-economic welfare that are likely to accompany access policies, justify the investment,” he says.
By Kevin Billinghurst | firstname.lastname@example.org