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Young African woman cooks a meal over a wood-burning fire outside a brick house in Malawi

The quiet triumph of COP28: clean cooking

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The quiet triumph of COP28: clean cooking

Fossil fuels and Loss and Damage dominated the COP28 headlines in December 2023, but the climate negotiation in Dubai yielded an unsung victory that could improve well-being and cut pollution for millions of people.

International donors committed to investing billions of dollars into clean cooking, which can make a dent in the roughly 3 to 4 million premature deaths attributed to household air pollution, fuelled in large part by cooking with biomass such as wood and coal.

SEI Senior Scientist Rob Bailis gives a primer on the state of clean cooking progress and how COP28 may have rallied unprecedented support for the cause.

Lynsi Burton, Rob Bailis / Published on 7 February 2024


Profile picture of Rob Bailis
Rob Bailis

Senior Scientist


What were the main issues and objectives heading into COP for clean cooking?

The issues are, and have always been, lack of clean cooking access among 2 to 2.5 billion people and the various ways that the global community, and specifically advocates in the clean cooking space, have tried to leverage climate finance and engage with lower- and middle-income countries to boost access, with potential co-benefits for climate and development.

They have been plugging away at this issue which has persisted for decades now, but specifically in the climate space. I’ve been working with colleagues to highlight the mitigation opportunities. But, in years past, we’ve faced headwinds because the countries where this is most problematic haven’t traditionally attracted finance needed to address the problem at scale.

Coming into this COP, there was a lot of anticipation just because the topic itself has gained some momentum relative to past years, building on the regional climate week that happened in Nairobi in September, which was a first. Lack of access to clean cooking received a lot of attention there, helped in part by the President of Kenya, who has made it a flagship issue.

Briefly, how would you situate clean cooking within the greater climate and development picture?

I realize it’s not the first thing everyone thinks about in the morning.

Globally, it’s a small-ish source of emissions. Estimates are around 2% of overall human-caused emissions, which is small, but also similar in size to aviation and to shipping, which both get a lot of attention, right? In terms of the magnitude, it’s about the same.

But then, for any given country in the Global South, it can be a major source of emissions, depending on how much they are or aren’t industrialized, and what their energy mix looks like. So for countries with a relatively clean grid that are maybe partially industrialized – Kenya as an example – it’s a major source of emissions at a national level. For less industrialized countries, like Malawi, it’s more still, because they have a really clean electric grid and not that much industrialization.

It’s a marriage of a major development challenge, with 3 to 4 million avoidable deaths every year – a major source disease burden across the Global South – linked to a fairly substantial source of emissions. And it links to other climate-relevant sectors like forestry and land cover change, and also air quality and public health. These all overlap with climate generally. It’s a very relevant topic for a subset of countries in this space and also for the advanced economies that are looking for joint mitigation opportunities through bilateral carbon trading.

Some countries have been quite active in this space. So, clean cooking converges with climate in several different ways, mostly around mitigation potential, but also with development co-benefits that other mitigation opportunities don’t necessarily bring.

What did COP deliver on clean cooking, and how significant were these developments?

Super significant on a couple of fronts.

One of the things that the organizations that are active in this space have been saying for nearly a decade now is that the scale of investment required is really modest in the big picture of energy transitions and what we need to do to decarbonize the economy. And the figure that they come up with is around USD 4.5 billion a year, which sounds like a lot of money, but we’re talking about billions of people and transitioning an entire sub-sector’s energy mix.

So, in that context, it’s not that much. But, to date, the funding mobilized both through the private sector and through the international development community has been a fraction of that – like $130 million per year – just 2 to 3% of what is really needed.

But what materialized at this COP was a set of commitments from a handful of donors – plus the African Development Bank, which is maybe the most relevant in this space – to direct about 20% of their energy sector investments to clean cooking. This should channel an additional $2 billion investment in clean cooking over the next 10 years, which falls short of the funding needed, but still has the potential to be transformative.

And then some other key donors are coming through, and specifically Nefco (Nordic Environment Finance Corporation Corporation) and the Swedish Energy Agency are pumping in tens of millions, equivalent to a good fraction of the total investment in past years. We’re not at the multibillion level yet, but we’re inching towards it in ways that haven’t been done before.

Also, the International Energy Agency is giving this much more attention than they had given it in the past. Not necessarily with any funding attached to it, but still doing full studies of this as opposed to a small section of their World Energy Outlook that they generate every year. So they are really putting it on the front burner, so to speak, not as just a development issue, but as an energy issue, which I think makes a difference.

(Clean cooking is) a marriage of a major development challenge, with 3 to 4 million avoidable deaths every year – a major source disease burden across the Global South – linked to a fairly substantial source of emissions.

Rob Bailis, Senior Scientist

Does this funding effort focus on any particular fuel or method of cooking or delivery mechanism?

I think that remains to be seen.

A lot of the momentum is going toward electric cooking, which has all sorts of advantages, but also brings all sorts of additional challenges when you’re thinking about parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Something that was launched at COP is a Global Electric Cooking Coalition (GeCCo), with the objective of significantly scaling up access to electric cooking throughout the Global South. The coalition’s initial target is to achieve a large-scale transition to eCooking in at least select countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America by 2030.

What are other areas to watch in the clean cooking space? What might we look out for in the coming years?

For me, what’s most interesting is to see how this this promised funding is actually utilized – first, whether it materializes, since there’s a long history of making very lofty promises at COPs and not actually coming through.

But let’s assume that it will materialize – then I want to see how it actually gets spent. There’s a little bit of contention here because we often think of Africa as kind of homogeneous, but it’s not. And there are a handful of countries where there has been a lot of attention and a lot of investment, leading to some fairly encouraging progress. For example, Kenya and, to a lesser extent, Ghana and Rwanda are doing some really cool stuff. But then there are other countries – 40-plus countries in in sub-Saharan Africa – where there has been minimal investment and very little progress.

So it’ll be interesting to see how these funds are disbursed between countries where there is a lot of momentum and maybe a little additional investment will boost them further along, and countries that have had little or no investment to date, and the clean cooking baseline is very, very low. In those places, and the initial return on investment will likely be minimal, but without some initial investment, nothing will ever happen. So, seeing how it’s distributed and what kind of decisions are made, I think for me is quite interesting.

And it will also be interesting to observe how much the successes we’ve seen in Kenya are replicable in some countries with fewer resources and more investment challenges, or if they need an entirely different kind of model.

Do these moves have any implications for your research in terms of replicating successes or scaling them up to benefit more people?

Two things come to mind. First, we’re working with the government in Uganda to develop a clean cooking strategy. So that might be the first step for many countries, to lay out a plan: If $10 million or $100 million come into the treasury, how should it be invested? Where do you need to target it in order to initiate this transition? How do you monitor progress, put checks in the system or shift strategies if things aren’t working?

Ideally, we’ll develop some policies and programs that are replicable in other places and, possibly even be able to leverage the work so that we get additional opportunities to work with other governments in the region.

The other would be more techie, less policy-oriented research that I’ve been doing. In this work, we quantify the reductions in emissions and mitigation of climate change that’s likely to occur as a result of those making these investments and achieving the desired transitions. It’s very country-specific because it depends a lot on specific environmental factors like, if people are harvesting trees, how many, if any, grow back, which varies from place to place. This has been an ongoing project that will continue as this promised funding is disbursed.

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