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Traditional open-fire stoves are to blame for much of the pollution that leads to millions of deaths in the developing world. Safer options are available, and ISO is supporting the technology that may finally make clean cookstoves a reality.
Imagine if cooking ate up a quarter of your income, degraded your country’s forests and emitted toxic smoke into your family home. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that 3.8 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking. Worldwide, some three billion people cook their meals and heat their homes and water using open fires or simple stoves that create large amounts of household air pollution. These inefficient cooking options have been found to lead to serious health issues, such as pneumonia, heart disease and stroke. Sadly, without substantial policy change, the number of people lacking access to clean cooking fuels and technologies will remain largely unchanged.
Towards this effort, ISO technical committee ISO/TC 285 promotes clean and efficient cooking solutions with a special focus on the developing world. “It’s critical that communities have access to affordable, efficient, reliable and durable cookstoves that embrace the latest technologies and standards,” says Richard Ebong, Chair-elect of ISO/TC 285, “but it’s also essential that we work cooperatively with cookstove manufacturers to continually improve their products.” To ensure healthier communities, people need access to cookstoves that have been properly tested against known baseline criteria, he explains, and ISO is in the business of providing that baseline.
ISO/TC 285 promotes clean and efficient cooking solutions with a special focus on the developing world.
Driving stove and fuel innovation
Household energy specialist Elisa Derby says the ISO series on cookstoves defines common methodologies and reporting metrics to measure the performance and impact of cooking technologies and fuels. It also provides data for specific stove types and cooking practices for clean, efficient, affordable and usable technologies and fuels. Additionally, it sets voluntary performance targets that help stakeholders connect the performance of various cooking systems to health-based air pollution standards established by WHO.
So far, four deliverables have been published by ISO/TC 285 covering performance, safety and durability (ISO 19867-1), voluntary performance targets for cookstoves (ISO/TR 19867-3), field-testing methods (ISO 19869) and a vocabulary that lays down the basic terminology for the field (ISO/TR 21276). Now, a technical report is underway to establish guidelines for the social impact assessment of using cookstoves. The future ISO/TR 19915, Clean cookstoves and clean cooking solutions – Guidelines for social impact assessment, will provide guidance on how to evaluate the social impacts of improved cooking energy systems.
Derby, who is also Co-Convenor of the working group developing ISO/TR 19915 (alongside Dana Charron of Berkeley Air Monitoring Group), says the informative report represents the committee’s current work on the social impact assessment of clean cookstoves and clean cooking solutions. It will focus on what social impacts may arise from using new cooking systems, and how these occur, and will offer recommendations on useful tools and methods to measure direct and indirect social impacts.
Priority on performance
Developing and implementing performance standards is critical for driving innovation and building an industry that accelerates access to clean cooking around the world. The ISO guidance focuses on evaluating the performance of cookstoves, leaving it up to the stove manufacturers and distributors how best to use the technology to deliver stoves to market that meet local performance targets and consumers’ needs in terms of price and quality. Nevertheless, the ISO deliverables do more than just encourage companies to use them. The cookstove and clean cooking solutions have also been designed to be affordably adapted and adopted by national governments and allow developing countries to create a more predictable and stable operating environment for their cookstove industries. This, in turn, should attract more consumers, enterprises and investors.
Uganda is one country that is embracing ISO’s deliverables for cleaner, more modern cookstoves that can drastically reduce exposure to harmful smoke and fumes. More than 95 % of Ugandans still rely on solid fuels for cooking – typically charcoal or wood – which are damaging to both the environment and the health of local communities. Exposure is particularly high in women and young children, with more than three thousand children dying every year as a result of acute respiratory infections caused by smoke from these fuels, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Certainly, there is a market for improved cookstoves in Uganda, featuring multiple producers, distributors and technology solutions that could benefit from ISO’s work. Richard Ebong, who is responsible for quality assurance and innovation at the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, ISO’s member for the country, notes an appetite for ISO’s cookstoves guidance among his countrymen: “The Ugandan government has readily applied these standards and manufacturers of clean cooking appliances have also understood their importance and are eager to implement them. So far, this has led to safer, more efficient and harder-wearing stoves producing lower emissions.”
The Clean Cooking Alliance has also worked with ISO to highlight the risks women face in breathing harmful fumes at the hearth. Women also absorb most of the time burden from procurement and preparation of fuel, with data showing values up to 20 hours per week, as well as spending long hours cooking on inefficient stoves. Findings also show that a large part of the household income is spent on buying fuel. Reinforcing these statistics, a WHO report reveals that fuel gathering increases the risk of musculoskeletal damage and consumes considerable time, which limits opportunities for women to earn an income and can take children away from school.
But that’s not the whole story, says Elisa Derby. “We know that implementing changes to a household’s cooking system can have impacts on household members that are socioeconomic and health-related, including the perception of well-being and how people use their time. However, these changes may be viewed as harmful or beneficial by those affected, or result in trade-offs, and may affect family members differently, or change the balance of labour in the home,” she says.
It is important, therefore, to measure whether improved technology in one area might make things difficult in other areas. Derby cites the example of a family selecting a cookstove that will save precious time spent cooking and collecting fuel. “It may use less fuel but could need more tending, or require smaller pieces of fuel more often,” she says. “The cook may then spend extra time chopping fuel in advance or may no longer be able to multitask after the stove is lit, because it needs constant attention. In this scenario, the shorter cooking time is offset by the need to prep fuel and food before lighting the stove.”
On the other hand, a positive consequence could see other household members taking on cooking duties if the technology makes the process quicker and easier, which would free up the main cook (usually the mother or daughter) for other tasks. “We may see that shorter cooking times give the cook more time for agricultural work, which she may appreciate. It is therefore important to consider, and measure, the intended and unintended consequences to families and individuals that can arise from changes in cooking systems on a familial and social level.”
In Uganda, many women’s groups were consulted on the ISO standards for cookstoves and their feedback sought on what they needed from the cookstoves they used or planned to buy. “Women see many opportunities beyond improved safety,” notes Ebong. “They see business opportunities in that they can give manufacturers useful feedback by testing out new cookstoves and being able to demonstrate their durability, efficiency, affordability and safety to others as trusted members of their communities. Distribution and sales of these technologically advanced cookstoves also give them financial incentives.”
Tried, tested, true
According to the Clean Cooking Alliance, “standards provide rigorous definitions and goals for stove and fuel performance, safety, durability and quality”. The Alliance also recognizes that “the best available international guidelines are being developed through an ISO consensus process”. To develop a standard that is both steeped in science and practical to implement requires the input and perspective of stakeholders from across the sector, from technical experts to policymakers.
ISO has developed laboratory and field-testing guidelines to accurately depict the emissions measured and the outcomes of using better technologies and ensuring that the methodology and metrics applied are aligned throughout the world. While laboratories are able to run tests that are extremely accurate and with little interference, ISO recognizes that standards for field testing should allow measures to be adapted to more effectively recreate the conditions, fuel availability and homes that cookstoves are used in.
One challenge with cookstoves is that you cannot tell by looking at a stove how it will perform in terms of fuel use or emissions – you have to test it. Derby explains: “In the past, different countries and testing experts used different test methods and reporting metrics to describe stove performance, which led to confusion in the sector, especially among consumers, donors, investors and policymakers. For these non-technical audiences, it is difficult to interpret test results with different methods and indicators.”
The ISO guidance can help countries design policies accordingly. For example, a government may require that, in order to be eligible to participate in a national stove programme, stoves must meet a certain level of performance, for example Tier 3 for efficiency or Tier 2 for particulate emissions, as measured in a certified laboratory. The ISO deliverables for cookstoves will be fundamental to building a global market and achieving impact.
Standards provide rigorous definitions and goals for stove and fuel performance, safety, durability and quality.
The air you breathe
Conducting a social impact assessment on clean cooking solutions has become even more important during these COVID-19 times. A United States nationwide study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (not yet peer-reviewed) found that people exposed to air pollution are more likely to die from coronavirus than people living in areas where the air is clean. “This research is an ominous sign for many developing countries where air pollution levels often far exceed WHO guidelines,” writes Her Excellency Samira Bawumia, the Second Lady of Ghana and Clean Cooking Alliance Champion, in an opinion piece for the organization. “More worrying still, air quality inside people’s homes can be magnitudes worse than the air they breathe outside, due in large part to how people cook.”
Even for households that are already using cleaner cooking fuels, such as electricity, liquefied petroleum gas or ethanol, the current economic slowdown could mean a return to firewood or other polluting cooking fuels. Governments need to tackle this issue by making clean cooking a part of their pandemic emergency response plan and incorporating ISO’s guidance for clean-burning cookstoves could considerably help to further their long-term health goals.
Innovative cooking solutions could be vital in reducing household air pollution and decreasing respiratory illnesses. By continuing to evaluate current and emerging cookstove technologies and fuels, ISO will maintain its work with governments, donors, manufacturers and consumers to produce improvements to air quality, health, social and environmental outcomes. From here, ISO’s cookstove work will go on to play an extensive role in helping to bring cleaner, more efficient and more affordable cooking solutions to more communities around the world.