For people in developed countries, burning fuelwood in an open hearth evokes nostalgia and romance. But in developing countries, the harsh reality is that several billion people, mainly women and children, face long hours collecting fuelwood, which is burned inefficiently in traditional biomass stoves. The smoke emitted into their homes exposes them to pollution levels 10–20 times higher than the maximum standards considered safe in developed countries. And the problem is not out of the ordinary. The majority of people in developing countries at present cannot afford the transition to modern fuels. Today, close to one half of the world’s people still depend on biomass energy to meet their cooking and heating needs.

To be sure, the term ‘hearth’ in developed countries connotes feelings of warmth and closeness of families. In fact, many people in developed countries still use firewood for ambience and to heat their living rooms or even entire homes, sometimes in state-of-the-art, high-efficiency stoves. In the developed world, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are tested and approved by various agencies responsible for ensuring that appliances meet strict safety standards. Even before the twentieth-century transition from coal-burning and biomass stoves to gas and electricity, public agencies in developed countries often insisted on major retrofits for original cooking and heating systems to meet fire and pollution codes. The implication for developing countries is that, even without making a complete transition to electricity, kerosene, or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) or other various types of cooking gases, there are intermediate options for eliminating human drudgery and indoor air pollution.

Cleaner Hearths, Better Homes: New Stoves for India and the Developing World has a twofold goal: describing India’s best legacy improved biomass stove programs and recommending ways in which the international community can promote stoves that are commercially viable, convenient for users, and more energy efficient. By implication, there also would be a reduction of indoor air pollution to more reasonable levels than is common today. To date, the effectiveness of many of the world’s stove programs has been hindered by their small scale. Even India’s best case examples faced serious challenges. But hard-learned lessons from these cases, combined with varied experience from stove programs around the world, can well serve the international development community’s efforts to address the energy problems faced by the poorest populations on our planet.

This book should be of interest to policymakers and scientists across a broad spectrum of disciplines—from health, environment, and economics to sociology, anthropology, and physics. Indeed, the hands of many specialists are required to ensure successful stove programs, which call for social marketing, stove engineering, development of standards, promotion of private and commercial enterprises, and appropriate subsidy schemes. That the book’s authors represent diverse disciplines—sociology, physics, and forest economics—underscores the range of perspectives needed to tackle the issues involved in the commercial promotion of improved stoves.

The impetus for writing this book started at the end of a World Bank project on the health implications of indoor air pollution, which coincided with the Government of India’s (GoI) cancellation of its 20-year program on improved stoves. The government’s decision came as no surprise, given the program’s mixed results. They echoed those of other stove programs around the world, which similarly suffered from the many fits and starts of donor interest. There was no lack of evidence in India or, indeed, from around the world, to support skeptics of improved stoves. But diminishing government interest was incongruous with the urgent need to address the health and welfare concerns of people dependent on biomass energy for their livelihoods and subsistence, as well as growing environmental concerns associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

One may rightfully ask: What motivated the authors to produce this book on India’s improved stoves? In the face of many doubts, we discovered that users in areas where programs enjoyed relative success valued the benefits of the improved stoves. Also, a large group of dedicated people was genuinely committed to facilitating the acceptance of stoves in many areas. To our surprise, many programs previously branded as hopeless had promising, innovative features. These findings motivated us to dig even deeper until we were convinced that it was incumbent on us to review past experiences and translate them into a set of recommendations that could aid the world’s several billion people that depend on biomass cooking and heating energy. In short, despite the myriad difficulties involved in finding solutions, the human dimension of the problem was too big to ignore.

Lessons from the six case studies in India and other stove programs around the globe confirm that there are no magic solutions to alleviating indoor air pollution and the other problems associated with cooking on traditional stoves. Even if households adopt improved biomass stoves, without chimneys or other venting devices, family members cannot escape the negative respiratory effects of breathing smoke emitted into their homes. Yet, for many decades, small and intermittent funding in many countries has hampered learning from experience. One stove expert that reviewed this manuscript asked whether we had given stoves a fair chance to succeed, indicating that financing one scrubber on one power plant is probably equivalent to all of the funding provided for stove programs worldwide over decades. This comparison—albeit a bit exaggerated—nevertheless reveals a need for the international development community to prioritize its handling of indoor air pollution and the human and environmental cost of burning biomass in traditional stoves.

Download the book from the HEDON Publications database.