Clean cooking for all by 2030 – improving morning rituals

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Camilla Toulmin
Camilla Toulmin

Senior Fellow for Sustainable Energy at the Africa-Europe Foundation

Sitting with a cup of tea to hand after a hot shower is part of my morning ritual. The flick of a switch makes it quick and easy for us, Europeans.

On the far side of the Sahara, my friend Makono Dembele lives in a small mud village in central Mali, which I have been studying for the last 40 years. He tells me he is preparing for his marriage next week. Once married, Souncoura Diarra, his wife to-be, will be up at dawn to kindle the hearth and heat water for him to wash. From early in the morning, she will set off to draw water from the well for the millet porridge that will sustain them through the morning’s labour. In her kitchen, the fire is often smoky, making her cough. Souncoura can also hear the rasping breath of the infant strapped to her back. Despite these poor living conditions, she feels lucky when she compares herself with her sister who lives on the edge of Mali’s capital Bamako. Her situation is more difficult, as she must spend hard-earned cash to buy a small handful of charcoal each day to coax her cooking-fire into life to start the morning’s tasks.

Two morning rituals over 5,000km apart. Whilst I have only had to walk a few steps to get my desk and start work, Souncoura has completed her 10,000 steps by breakfast time, having gone to the well twice to fetch water while the porridge was simmering.

While we all have the same direction of travel towards net-zero, different pathways can take us there

In Europe, we rightly want to lead the global race towards decarbonisation and become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The Green Deal provides the strategic roadmap for accelerating movement in this direction. Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its latest report ‘Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’, has made it explicit that to reach this target, all new oil and gas exploration projects must be stopped immediately. It’s a crystal-clear signal, amplifying the message from the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, that the fossil fuel era is over. Aiming for net-zero by 2050 is the only way to limit warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times.

But what are the implications for nations in Africa? Low carbon priorities may not be perceived the same way as in Europe, where parliaments across the continent have called a climate emergency. Some voices in Europe are saying to Africa: “We’ve left taking action on climate so late that it’s now become an emergency. So, I am sorry, but you have to give up on your plans to build gas and petro-chemical plants. And sorry Souncoura, that means no prospect of gas for cooking either.”

Calling on Africa to wait for new green technologies to allow them to cook using electricity is ambitious and will demand patience, as some 570mn still lack access to power whether off or on-grid. Despite Europe’s great ambitions for Africa’s energy transformation, with its EU-Africa Green Energy Initiative, today an estimated 900mn in Sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to clean cooking solutions. In cities across the continent from Dakar and Freetown to Addis Ababa, Lilongwe and Kinshasa, 85% of households still rely on smoky woodfuel, charcoal or kerosine.

Reading the IEA report more carefully, however, shows that while we all have the same direction of travel towards net-zero, different pathways can take us there. Each route depends on national context and development need. For good or ill, fossil fuels, most notably gas, are likely to play an important part of the energy mix for many African economies for decades to come.

Public subsidies are now under threat because LPG, after all, is derived from fossil fuels

Globally four million people die prematurely as a result of poor indoor air quality, of which 500,000 are in Africa, a far larger toll for the continent than official deaths to date from COVID-19. Offering clean cooking solutions to millions of households in low- and middle-income countries in Africa must become a priority for both Europe and Africa. It is time to reboot political and financial leadership towards achieving SDG 7 by 2030 and ensure clean cooking solutions play an integral part in energy investment plans at city and country level.

There are several cleaner options for cooking – from more efficient wood and charcoal stoves, which use less fuel and cut smoke emissions, and electric cookers, to liquid petroleum gas (LPG) often known as propane.

Using LPG for clean cooking in towns and cities across Africa cuts particulate air pollution, lowering the appalling number of people worldwide who die from this cause each year. It would also cut carbon emissions from deforestation, charcoal-making and burning of woodfuel. Several LPG for clean cooking businesses are now up and running to supply homes in Africa’s urban areas and informal settlements, offering jobs in distribution and supply which are often taken by women. These businesses usually rely on a small public subsidy to make the equipment and gas affordable to poorer households and cheaper than charcoal.

But such public subsidies are now under threat because LPG, after all, is derived from fossil fuels. Donor governments and development finance institutions are scaling back any support for fossil fuels. But can it be right to address our pressing global climate challenge at the expense of households which have made negligible contributions to global emissions? And for an option which would take the pressure off forests and woodlands, transform the lives and health of the poorest households and help deliver on SDG 7? Cutting the daily drudgery would also give women a bit more time to carry out the multiple tasks which present themselves, so they might even find a moment to sit down with a cup of tea in hand.

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