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SEI’s Rob Bailis talks to Global Dispatches podcast about new research on cleaner cooking for the climate

SEI Senior Scientist Rob Bailis spoke to the Global Dispatches podcast about his new research on cleaner cooking fuels. The study revealed that a large-scale transition from polluting fuels such as wood and charcoal to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and grid-based electricity not only achieves human health benefits, but also helps the climate.

Published on 13 March 2023
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Two women cook around a wood-burning fire in South Africa.

Photo: Martin Harvey / Getty Images

About 2.4 billion people rely on biomass to fuel their cooking, according to WHO. Consequently, these people are exposed to harmful household air pollution (HAP), adding up to about 3 million deaths per year.

But other fuels that are cleaner for users, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and grid-based electricity, are based wholly or mostly upon fossil fuels, which drive climate change.

So, SEI’s Rob Bailis and a team of scientists asked: Does switching to LPG and electricity leave us worse off in our global effort to reduce climate-harming emissions?

Bailis discussed this new research with the Global Dispatches podcast, hosted by Mark Leon Goldberg, executive editor of UN Dispatch.

What Bailis and his team found in their novel study was that a large-scale transition to LPG and electricity for cooking actually helps the climate when compared with continuing on a path of burning wood, charcoal and dung.

“When you consider all the different emission streams that come from these different cooking options – if you convert either to LPG, 100% fossil fuels, or electricity, mostly fossil fuel-derived – you actually have a lower climate impact overall,” Bailis told Goldberg.

The HAP caused by biomass is multifold: such fuels pump the air full of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene and other cancer-causing pollutants.

But so is the climate damage caused by biomass, Bailis explained.

The poorer the country, the more ingrained the problem tends to be.

Rob Bailis

With wood, for instance, when trees are removed at a faster rate than they can regenerate, forests lose ability to sequester carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Second, burning wood emits pollutants that not only hurt human health, but contribute to climate change, such as black carbon and methane.

Over 20 years, the modelling done by Bailis’s team showed that transitions to LPG and electricity result in net global cooling, making such a change an important means of achieving international climate goals.

These transitions are most important for the Global South and poorer countries, which are disproportionately hurt by the effects of polluting cooking fuels.

“The poorer the country, the more ingrained the problem tends to be,” Bailis said.

Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is set to increase its use of biomass through 2050, he added – an issue that must be confronted with large-scale investment in cleaner options.

“What I hope our results can do is spur some additional investment in this to make the transition, particularly in (sub-Saharan Africa) a little more likely.”

The research was published in February 2023 in Environmental Research Letters.

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Rob Bailis

Senior Scientist


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