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Energy poverty and indoor air pollution: a problem as old as humanity that we can end within our lifetime

This is a composite image of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. It

  • This is a composite image of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. It was published by NASA. The earth at night – from all angles – can be explored via NASA’s Black Marble Project in Google Earth (as of 2021 Google Earth is showing images of the earth at night in 2016.

  • The photo was taken by Rebecca Blackwell for the Associated Press.
    It was published by the New York Times here.

  • This visualization is based on the Energy Ladder presented in WHO (2006) – Fuel for life: household energy and health. Online here.

    Clean fuels are those that do not cause harmful levels of emissions within the household. Among those fuels that are considered in the ‘Energy Ladder’ these are all fuels except the solid fuels and biomass.

    On clean fuels see:

    It would be possible to add specific technologies (rather than just fuels) to the Energy Ladder, in such an extended version one might consider to include improved biomass cookstoves (ICS) and solar cookers.

    An improved biomass cookstove (ICS) describes a stove with higher efficiency or lower emissions than a traditional stove. The WHO however cautions:  “Most ICS models do not meet WHO Guidelines, but offer some benefits and can be used as transitional solutions.Further innovation, research and investment may indeed produce affordable and widely available biomass stoves that meet the WHO Guidelines levels.” Further below in this text I discuss some of the benefits of high-quality ICS.Solar cookers are not as widely adopted as the fuels considered here and are not included in the Energy Ladder published by the WHO.

  • WHO (2018) – Fact Sheet – Household air pollution and health

    Junfeng (Jim) Zhang, Kirk R Smith (2003) – Indoor air pollution: a global health concern, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 68, Issue 1, December 2003, Pages 209–225, https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldg029

    The pollutants encompass a wide range of different compounds, the most important ones being fine particulate matter (PM2.5), black carbon, and carbon monoxide.

    WHO 2006) reports: “Burning solid fuels produces extremely high levels of indoor air pollution: typical 24-hour levels of PM10 in biomass-using homes in Africa, Asia or Latin America range from 300 to 3000 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). Peaks during cooking may be as high as 10 000 µg/m3. By comparison, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has set the standard for annual mean PM10 levels in outdoor air at 50 µg/m3; the annual mean PM10 limit agreed by the European Union is 40 µg/m3.” –– WHO (2006) – Fuel for life: household energy and health. Online here.

    Delhi is one of the cities with the worst air quality in recent years. Wikipedia has an overview of measurements on their site Air pollution in Delhi and daily data on the air quality in Delhi can be found here.

    For a comparison of indoor air pollution levels from different energy sources see Shupler, M., Hystad, P., Birch, A., Miller-Lionberg, D., Jeronimo, M., Arku, R. E., Chu, Y. L., Mushtaha, M., Heenan, L., Rangarajan, S., Seron, P., Lanas, F., Cazor, F., Lopez-Jaramillo, P., Camacho, P. A., Perez, M., Yeates, K., West, N., Ncube, T., … Brauer, M. (2020) – Household and personal air pollution exposure measurements from 120 communities in eight countries: Results from the PURE-AIR study. In The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(10), e451–e462. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30197-2

  • For more information on the relevant research see the final section of our entry on indoor air pollution

    And for an overview of the health consequences of indoor air pollution see Bruce, N., Perez-Padilla, R., & Albalak, R. (2000) – Indoor air pollution in developing countries: a major environmental and public health challenge. In Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 78(9), 1078–1092.

  • Cooking on an open fire or with simple, poorly designed stoves is a leading cause of burns, especially among women and children in poorer countries. See World Health Organization (2018) – Fact sheets: Burns

  • Indoor air pollution increases the risk of cataracts. See: Lim SS, Vos T, Flaxman AD, Danaei G, Shibuya K, Adair-Rohani H et al. (2012) – A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 380:2224-226023245609.

  • On the impact of indoor air pollution on adverse pregnancy outcomes (including stillbirth) see Pope DP, Mishra V, Thompson L, Siddiqui AR, Rehfuess EA, Weber Met al. (2010) – Risk of low birth weight and stillbirth associated with indoor air pollution from solid fuel use in developing countries. Epidemiol Rev 32:70-8120378629.

  • These are the latest estimates at the time of writing in June 2021. In 2018 (the latest available WHO publication) the WHO estimated 3.8 million deaths. WHO (2018) – Fact Sheet – Household air pollution and health. This data refers to 2016 (as indicated here).

    The results of the Global Burden of Disease study by the IHME can be found in their scientific publications (usually published in The Lancet) and the specific results on the impact of air pollution can also be found in the annual report ‘State of Global Air’. This report is published jointly by the IHME and the Health Effects Institute.

    Health Effects Institute (2020) – State of Global Air 2020. Special Report. Boston, MA.

    • 1990: 4,358,000 deaths due to household air pollution from solid fuels
    • 2019: 2,314,000 deaths due to household air pollution from solid fuels

    Because the IHME data is more recent and updated annually we rely mostly on IHME data in our work on indoor air pollution.

    We are unfortunately not aware of any detailed explanation for the large discrepancy between these two estimates.

  • These are rounded numbers for 2017 from the IHME. For details see our entry on causes of death.

  • For an overview see Gowlett, J. a. J. (2016) – The discovery of fire by humans: A long and convoluted process. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1696), 20150164. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0164

  • Ran Barkai, Jordi Rosell, Ruth Blasco, and Avi Gopher (2017) – Fire for a Reason: Barbecue at Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel. In Current Anthropology; Volume 58, Number S16, August 2017, Fire and the Genus Homo.

    An overview of the team’s research in Qesem cave can be found in 400,000-year-old dental tartar provides earliest evidence of manmade pollution in EurekAlert.

  • Owen Jarus – Egyptian Mummies Hold Clues of Ancient Air Pollution. In LiveScience.

  • Seneca – Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. In Letter CIV. Partly online here.

  • See Raising Global Energy Ambitions: The 1,000 kWh Modern Energy Minimum and IEA (2020) – Defining energy access: 2020 methodology, IEA, Paris.

  • Fouquet, R. (2011) – Long run trends in energy-related external costs. Ecological Economics, 70(12), 2380–2389. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421512003734
    This practice is called ‘fuel stacking’.
    There are many reasons for that, a large one is that cooking is very energy-intensive and that poor households do have access to sufficient electrical energy to rely on it for such energy-intensive uses. There can also be other practical considerations, for example that a modern stove cannot accommodate a pot that is large enough to cook for the whole family. Or that people prefer the taste of food cooked on a wood or a charcoal stove.

  • FAO (2017) – The Charcoal Transition

    In FAO – Wood Energy – Basic Knowledge the authors write “The annual removal of wood worldwide was estimated at about 3.7 billion m3, of which 1.87 billion m3 was used as fuel.

  • FAO and UNEP. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca8642en
    The same report also reports that an estimated 880 million people worldwide are  collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal with it

  • According to the 2017 FAO publication The Charcoal Transition the use of firewood and charcoal contributes between 1-2.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases annually, which is 2-7% of global anthropogenic emissions.

  • On this see the linked work on Our World in Data on deforestation and also Rufus D Edwards, Smith KR, Zhang J, Ma Y. (2004) – Implications of changes in household stoves and fuel use in China. In Energy Policy 32:395-411.

  • WHO (2018) – Fact Sheet – Household air pollution and health

    Dasgupta, Susmita; Huq, Mainul; Khaliquzzaman, M.; Pandey, Kiran; Wheeler, David (2004) – Who Suffers from Indoor Air Pollution? Evidence from Bangladesh. Policy Research Working Paper; No.3428. World Bank.

    Shupler et al (2020) on the other hand, report only small differences in the exposure between men and women.
    Shupler, M., Hystad, P., Birch, A., Miller-Lionberg, D., Jeronimo, M., Arku, R. E., Chu, Y. L., Mushtaha, M., Heenan, L., Rangarajan, S., Seron, P., Lanas, F., Cazor, F., Lopez-Jaramillo, P., Camacho, P. A., Perez, M., Yeates, K., West, N., Ncube, T., … Brauer, M. (2020) – Household and personal air pollution exposure measurements from 120 communities in eight countries: Results from the PURE-AIR study. In The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(10), e451–e462. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30197-2

  • This is according to the figures from the IHME. In 1990 – just a generation ago – 2.7 million people died from indoor air pollution. Since then the number of deaths has fallen to 1.6 million.

  • This is according to their Stated Policies Scenario, or STEPS, scenario which is taking into account current and announced policies. It is also taking into account a reversal in progress in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

  • See Health Effects Institute (2020) – State of Global Air 2020. Special Report. Boston, MA.

  • Berkouwer, S. B., & Dean, J. T. (2019). Credit and attention in the adoption of profitable energy efficient technologies in Kenya. UC Berkeley CEGA Working Paper. Available at http://www.susannaberkouwer.com/research.html 

    A short post about this study by one of the authors is published on the World Bank blog.

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