Clean cookstoves and the carbon markets storm

One of the world’s most significant yet often overlooked public health crises stems from an unexpected source: cooking.

The World Health Organization reports that in 2020, an estimated 3.2 million people died from household air pollution, primarily caused by cooking on open fires or stoves using kerosene, biomass, or coal. This pollution contributes to various health issues including heart disease, strokes, lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.

According to the International Energy Agency, approximately one-third of the world’s population, or 2.3 billion people, lack access to safe methods of “clean” cooking. Women and girls are disproportionately affected as they typically spend more time cooking and engaged in household chores.

Many organisations are working to bring clean cookstoves to a greater number of people in sub-Saharan Africa, where 80% of the population continues to lack access. These clean cookstoves come in a variety of designs; some simply burn fuels like charcoal or wood more efficiently, while others use less polluting fuels, including liquified petroleum gas.
A key factor in financing the rollout of clean cookstoves is the voluntary carbon market. People cut down trees to collect biomass, then release further emissions when burning polluting fuels. Cookstove projects can issue carbon credits, based on the volume of emissions that are avoided when clean cookstoves are used instead of more polluting alternatives. Clean cooking projects accounted for around 15% of all carbon credits issued from May to November 2023.
The carbon market has, however, encountered sustained criticism over the last year. Claims around avoided emissions are being treated with growing scepticism, and prices of carbon credits have fallen. Progress in expanding clean cooking could be in jeopardy unless the industry can find a way forward.
The revenue that clean cookstoves project developers can generate from carbon credits enables them to offer cookstoves at greatly subsidised prices, putting these products within reach of a much greater number of low-income people.
“When carbon credits were not available to fund cookstoves adequately throughout the last decade, sales were negligible,” says Sam Goldman, co-founder of d.light, a company that sells green energy products, including cookstoves. He estimates that sales would immediately fall by 95% without subsidies from carbon credits.
But investigations by academics and media organisations over the past year have uncovered examples of severe methodological flaws in projects that sell carbon credits.
Some of the criticism has focused on clean cookstoves specifically.
In the latest blow, the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability published research , opens new tabin January stating that clean cookstove projects included within the researchers’ sample are overestimating their carbon removal benefits by almost 1,000%. The researchers suggested, in other words, that cookstove projects are issuing far more carbon credits – each of which is meant to represent a tonne of carbon – than justified by their real-world performance.
Similarly, last May, research led by carbon credit ratings platform Calyx Global found that emissions reductions from cookstove projects are “very likely overestimated”. It said that 70% of the projects it reviewed were at high-risk of overstating their emissions benefits.
These studies come with many nuances and caveats, and their central findings are heavily disputed by standard-setting organisations and cookstove project developers. But there is no doubt that confidence in the carbon markets has been shaken. Headlines about “worthless” or “junk” carbon credit schemes inevitably make potential purchasers think twice about entering the carbon markets.
Goldman says that demand for credits issued by d.light have held up, but acknowledges that the falling price of credits affects the ability of developers to offer subsidised stoves. “We are finding challenges in securing sufficiently high prices,” he says, noting that “hundreds of millions” of cookstoves are needed to improve public health and mitigate climate change.
Despite the challenges, there are several reasons to remain cautiously optimistic about the expansion of clean cookstoves.
First, not all cookstove providers are dependent on the carbon market. “It’s difficult to build a business model purely reliant on carbon credits,” says Mansoor Hamayun, chief executive of Bboxx, which provides pay-as-you-go energy products to consumers in 11 countries in Africa and South Asia. He tells The Ethical Corporation that the carbon markets could be a game changer for clean cooking in the future, but says that for the time being – amid fluctuating prices – it is best seen as an “optional extra” on top of other revenue streams.
Hamayun says Bboxx has been able to crack the pay-as-you-go market for clean cookstoves by recognising that its customers operate in the informal economy and typically struggle with large monthly bills.
“Our big breakthrough was just a more efficient billing system. Instead of charging you per month, we charge you daily,” he says, noting that this replicates the way that customers would typically pay for kerosene or charcoal.
Efforts to improve the integrity of the carbon credits issued by cookstove providers are also important to restoring confidence. Verra, one of the leading standard-setters in the voluntary carbon market, is finalising a new methodology for quantifying the carbon reductions that come from cookstoves and similar products.
A spokesperson for the organisation said in an emailed response to a question that the new methodology “incorporates credible and streamlined monitoring approaches such as direct measurement techniques”.
“We believe these will underline the immense value of high-integrity cookstove projects for climate and sustainability,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, new cookstove designs are emerging that potentially offer even more significant benefits for climate and health.
Chris McKinney is the chief commercial officer at cookstove company BURN Manufacturing. He says that the company has recently added an electric design to its range of charcoal, wood and LPG stoves.
“When I first started, it was a pipe dream to think that electric cooking could work at scale,” he says. Electricity grids in sub-Saharan Africa were so inadequate a decade ago that electric cooking seemed “impossible”, he said. While severe problems with electricity access persist (around half of Africa’s population lacks a connection), some countries, such as Kenya have seen significant improvement in recent years.,
McKinney believes that what he calls the “Holy Grail” is now within reach. He says that BURN’s electric stove is cheaper to use than cooking with charcoal. “Where we’re really, really excited and investing a lot of time and energy right now is to roll that out across the whole continent, anywhere that the grid can handle it, and essentially completely eliminate any health issues and deforestation issues that will be caused by cooking.”
It may also be simpler to quantify the emissions benefit of an electric cookstove, compared with some other designs, which could make these products better suited to the carbon market. Indeed, McKinney believes that the carbon markets will remain crucial for making clean cookstoves financially accessible.
“Any other mechanism remains theoretical today,” he says. His view is that carbon markets can help ensure cookstoves reduce emissions while bringing other benefit. “They can also enable really wide-scale adoption and improvement in many of the Sustainable Development Goals as well.”
Indeed, McKinney underlines that the market for clean cookstoves has already expanded rapidly and is poised for future growth, particularly if the industry can address the questions over integrity. “We’re going through a temporary rough patch, but we’ll come out better from the other side of it, and we’ll continue to see a lot of adoption.”

Related Posts