How cleaner cookstoves and fuels could benefit women’s health and the environment
With lesser access to financial resources and greater domestic responsibilities, women face the brunt of the climate change crisis. In particular, women are more affected by indoor air pollution caused by unclean cookstoves or fuel. In this post, Sharma and McDonough discuss the evidence around research efforts in India to promote the uptake of cleaner alternatives for cooking – in order to improve women’s health and the environment.
Inequalities exacerbate in times of crisis, and the climate crisis is no exception. India ranks 7th highest on a major climate risk index (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2021); droughts and heatwaves are set to intensify four-folds by the end of this century (Government of India, 2020), water stress is rising further with the depletion of ground and surface waters, and increasingly extreme weather events such as floods have become common, wielding a devastating blow to lives and livelihoods.
While the impact of a climatic extremity is faced similarly across a region, it affects different individuals differently – disproportionately affecting those who are already vulnerable or marginalised. Amidst this, women face the brunt of climate change’s consequences. Systemic and social dynamics have put women on the back foot: women tend to have lesser access to financial resources and greater expectations and responsibilities to stay put and care for the children and elders during a crisis, including giving up on their share of meals in times of food scarcity. After traveling (increasingly) long distances to gather fuelwood and water for the household at , women then face the gendered expectation to prepare food, often using traditional indoor cookstoves fuelled by biomass that produce noxious carbon monoxide and harmful particulate matter. Because women have a greater share of domestic chores and (beyond their domestic chores), they are more likely to be exposed to these deadly sources of indoor air pollution.
Indoor household pollution from non-clean cookstoves disproportionately affects women
The nationally representative 2019 Time Use in India survey found only 6.1% of men participate in cooking, while nearly all rural women undertake unpaid labour such as cooking, cleaning, and caregiving, for an average of nearly six and a half hours a day.
This means women are far, far more affected by pollution coming from cookstoves. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that indoor air pollution caused by indoor cooking using solid fuels such as crop wastes, dung, charcoal, and coal, is responsible for 4.3 million premature deaths each year; the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) puts this number at 1.6 million. In India, the estimated death rate on account of indoor air pollution is 51.03 premature deaths per 100,000. Deaths from indoor air pollution decline sharply when people have access to clean cooking fuels such as biogas, ethanol, natural gas, and electricity. In 2016, just over 40% of India’s residents had access to these clean cooking fuels – although this was a drastic increase from only 26% a decade earlier.
In the past few decades, clean cookstoves have come up as a potential solution for reducing pollution, lowering threats to respiratory health, and combating climate change at the household level.
Challenges of clean cookstoves
Programmes promoting the uptake and use of improved, affordable, and clean cookstoves with initial interest among rural households, have often fallen flat as the settings evaluating their efficacy move from laboratory to the real world.
When these cookstoves were tested in real rural contexts over longer time periods, behavioural, maintenance, supply and demand, preferential, and informational impediments crept in, which meant households often did not carry on with the improved cookstoves, resulting in women’s continued exposure to harmful substances while cooking and remaining in the house. For instance, a study in Odisha revealed that while improved cookstoves were initially popular owing to their affordability, positive impact on indoor air quality, and lower fuel requirements, their use declined over the longer term as they required repairing, the services for which were yet to become available locally, and so the households switched to their traditional, more polluting, but easily available cookstoves. Additionally, researchers in Kerala observed that even when households were willing to purchase cleaner cookstoves, they continued to rely upon their traditional polluting cookstoves, utilising the two different stoves for different purposes. Most recently, research findings from a multiphase randomised controlled trial in Uttarakhand revealed the importance of providing rural households with effective incentives to use cleaner cookstoves. They offered households either electric or biomass cookstoves and found that upgraded supply chains, adaptation to local needs, marketing, offering home delivery, and price discounts are more influential on households’ decisions to buy cleaner cookstoves. Here, households overwhelmingly preferred to buy the electric stove, suggesting that perhaps there might be scope for going beyond the provision of cleaner cookstoves, to offering cleaner fuel such as LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and electricity.
The potential for encouraging alternative cleaner fuels
As research provides mixed evidence on effective approaches to encourage the uptake of improved clean cookstoves, there is scope for considering alternative means of reducing household pollution such as the provision of LPG and . While electricity-powered stoves are better at reducing indoor household pollution and climate change, they are quite expensive and useful only for households with reliable electricity connection. This makes providing LPG a better alternative under the present circumstance. By reducing the time spent in foraging for biofuel, LPG for fuelling cookstoves can give women the time and energy to invest in more productive and even income-generating activities. Women with access to LPG through the Ujjwala scheme, on average, were able to spend 49 minutes less on care work and an extra hour on paid work (Oxfam India, 2019). There is still a long way to go, with immense scope for raising awareness on the adverse effects of indoor air pollution and the possibility of using LPG, as a little less than half the households in India still do not have access to cleaner LPG for cooking (International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), 2021) and this has been made even more difficult with the doubling of LPG prices in the past seven years. Most recently, the allocation for LPG subsidies has been more than halved (Government of India, 2022), yet subsiding LPG further for poorer households is the first step towards reducing the indoor household air pollution that disproportionately affects women. However, it is still not encouragingly sustainable and has its adverse environmental consequences. As a developing country, while India navigates its poverty alleviation and environmental preservation priorities, scientific and policy research should gear themselves to explore alternatives such as solar-powered electric stoves.
 Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is a centrally sponsored scheme launched by the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas in May 2016 to provide LPG connections to Below Poverty Line (BPL) households.
- Government of India (2020), ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’, Ministry of Earth Sciences.
- Government of India (2022), ‘Budget at a Glance’, Ministry of Finance, Budget Division.
- IIPS (2021), ‘National Family Health Survey-5 2019-2021: India Fact Sheet’, Report.
- IPCC (2021), ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’, Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- Oxfam India (2019), ‘Mind the Gap: The state of employment in India’, Report.
- Pattanayak, Subhrendru K et al. (2019), “Experimental evidence on promotion of electric and improved biomass cookstoves”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116 (27): 13282-13287.