Asia and the Pacific is home to around 60 per cent of the global population with no access to clean cooking solutions. Clean cooking solutions refers to fuel-stove combinations with emissions performance that meets the World Health Organization’s 2014 guidelines for indoor air quality. Yet, some 1.6 billion people from the region primarily rely on open fires or simple stoves fueled by kerosene, coal or biomass such as wood, dung and agricultural residues for their cooking needs.
Burning biomass in these inefficient stoves contributes to atmospheric warming and forest depletion, while inhaling the fine particulates emitted causes a range of serious health impacts. In 2016, poor indoor air quality contributed to an estimated 2.2 million premature deaths in Asia and the Pacific – 1 million more than the global death toll of COVID-19 in 2020. Moreover, the use of these stoves can widen gender gaps, as women often take primary responsibility for cooking and bear a greater burden of exposure to pollution.
Cleaner cooking solutions have the potential to generate a variety of social, economic and environmental benefits. A systematic review of the literature undertaken by ESCAP on the impact of clean cooking interventions observed that these interventions reduce fuelwood consumption, fuel collection time, cooking time and exposure to carbon monoxide. While cleaner cookstoves were on average successful at reducing the odds of Chronic Obsessive Pulmonary Disorder occurrence, their impact on other long-term health conditions were less convincing. The main explanation is that most studies report the impacts of improved firewood stoves which – unlike cleaner biogas, LPG, electric or natural gas stoves - do not reduce the emissions of harmful pollutants to the levels corresponding to the World Health Organization standards for indoor air pollution. To support policymaking in this area, the outcomes and recommendations are summarized in an associated Policy Brief.
While more efficient technologies greatly reduce the costs of cooking, in many cases, consumers cannot afford the upfront investment needed to switch to cleaner, but often more expensive, alternatives. Amid the crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, affordability is increasingly challenging, with many households backsliding into poverty. According to this year’s Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific, the region lost the equivalent of 140 million full-time jobs over the course of 2020, pushing a further 89 million people into extreme poverty. This means that, without financial support, more low-income households may not be able to pay for clean cooking solutions.
Yet the clean cooking sector remains significantly underfinanced. SEforAll estimates that, in 2017, global investments only reached 1 per cent of the annual investment required to attain universal access to clean cooking by 2030. Even more alarming, finance for residential clean cooking decreased by 73 per cent between 2015 and 2017, driven by a dramatic decline in international public finance.
The clean cooking sector increasingly relies upon finance from the domestic private sector, with an unprecedented level being reached in 2017. Supplementing traditional subsidies, impact-oriented entrepreneurs increasingly tap into recent innovations such as mobile payment systems and smart technologies to develop new consumer financing options.
Among these innovations, “Pay-as-you-go" solutions bring clean technologies within the financial reach of the population with customized payment options. While the cost of full LPG cylinders is often prohibitive for households with irregular and insecure incomes, companies operating in Africa like PayGo Energy, Envirofit and KopaGas, allow customers to pre-pay gas in any amount using money on their phones through smart meters positioned on LPG gas cylinders or natural gas valves. Smart meters can also track consumption and notify customers before the LPG cylinder runs out of gas to facilitate the delivery of new cylinders. This solution, piloted in Africa, has yet to be tested in Asia and the Pacific.
Pay-as-you-go models are also applied to electricity generated from Solar Home Systems (SHS) thanks to remotely managed control systems that automatically turn off the SHS once the amount of pre-paid electricity has been exhausted. While the consumer never owns the SHS under this arrangement, companies like Simpa in India enable the customer to unlock and produce free, unrestricted energy once the final purchase price has been fully paid through recurring payments.
The combination of virtual wallets and smart stoves also provides room to improve results-based financing mechanisms. In India, Project Surya uses real-time sensor technologies embedded in the stoves to measure reductions in emissions generated when users switch from a traditional to an improved biomass stove. In exchange for the emission reduction as quantified by the sensor, users directly receive mobile money to their phones instead of having to visit banks.
Making clean fuels affordable for low-income consumers is a substantial challenge on the way to universal energy access, crucial for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7. Yet, these examples demonstrate that widespread mobile use, faster connectivity and sensor technologies can transform financing and delivery mechanisms to provide affordable solutions for those most in need, leaving no one behind.