For individuals, the impact on health can be considerable. Household air pollution from use of solid fuels is linked with acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and other illnesses. Impacts on households include the work, lost time, and high opportunity costs involved in collecting and processing biomass fuels. Harvesting and burning biomass fuels also affects local environments by contributing to deforestation and outdoor air pollution. At the global level, inefficient burning of solid fuels contributes to climate change.

burning sugarcane harvesting process Malawi
Burning of sugarcane as part of the harvesting process in Malawi. Photo credit: SEI ESPA Project.

Improved biomass cookstoves have for a long time been considered the most feasible immediate solution. However, their ability to reduce exposure to household air pollution to levels that meet health standards is questionable. Furthermore, adoption of improved cookstoves has been low, and there is limited evidence on how to overcome barriers to adoption and use.

However, the issue of household air pollution in low- and middle-income countries has gained considerable attention, with a range of international initiatives in place to address it. These initiatives could enable a transition from biomass to cleaner fuels. But such a transition also requires an enabling policy environment, especially at the national level, and new ways to finance delivery of technology. More research is also needed to guide policy and interventions, especially on exposure-response relationships with various health outcomes, and on how to overcome poverty and other barriers to transitions from to cleaner forms of energy.