Study: Barrier to Widespread Use of Clean Cookstoves Surmounted

Project Surya effort to improve public health and slow pace of global warming provides rural women in India access to results-based climate financing

A multiyear experiment in healthier and more environmentally sustainable cooking practices among the world’s poorest three billion people has found key breakthroughs that can substantially improve women’s quality of life and slow the pace of climate change.

Project Surya, a research endeavor led by Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, found that women in poor Indian villages would more readily replace traditional polluting cookstoves with new clean-burning ones if the women could be more easily compensated for using such stoves and the stoves were easier to repair.

Surya added a sensor in each clean-burning stove to monitor its use in real time. The wireless data converted the improved stove use to reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and the second-largest climate pollutant, black carbon. These pollutant reductions were in turn converted to climate credits using state-of-the-art knowledge in climate change science. The study’s authors have innovated a results-based climate financing market instrument that “opens the door for rewarding rural women for becoming climate warriors.”

The study, “Wireless sensors linked to climate financing for globally affordable clean cooking,” appears in the Oct. 31 online edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers say Project Surya is a prime example of a bottom-up incentive system to change human behavior, and eliminate a lot of black-carbon (primarily from burning wood for cooking) and CO2 from deforestation through wood harvesting. The key is very simple “forced air” cook-stove technology, and climate credits to incent the women of India to use the stoves.  This behavior change not only pays for the capital investment in the stove, but provides a new currency they can use to further upgrade their lifestyles. Its results, the authors wrote, “provide a solid basis for understanding how best to apply” the $100 billion in climate financing pledged by developed nations during international climate negotiations.

“It’s a breakthrough approach using real-time data to solve the issue of affordability and make clean energy more sustainable in rural areas,” said study corresponding author Nithya Ramanathan, president and co-founder of the Los Angeles company Nexleaf Analytics, which developed the sensors installed in participating households.  “It’s a bottom-up approach where we’re saying, let’s get the money to the women who are actually taking the action.”

Nithya Ramanathan and study lead author Tara Ramanathan are daughters of Veerabhadran Ramanathan. 

“Engaging the women in the real-time data and climate credits gives women agency in the larger cookstove conversation and is key to improving their quality of life and the world,” said Tara Ramanathan, program director at Nexleaf. If these smart stoves are adopted by the poorest three billion, as many as 3.5 million lives each year can be saved. In addition, village women and teenage girls can reduce the time spent in collecting wood by half.

“The new approach will also reduce humanity’s climate footprint by four billion tons per year, the equivalent of about nine percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. No other solution for mitigating climate pollution can come close to this in bundling improving global health, empowering poor women, and mitigating global warming,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan.

Project Surya was launched in 2009 through support from the National Science Foundation, United Nations Environment Program and Qualcomm Wireless Reach™, a strategic initiative that uses mobile technology to create solutions to global issues.  It is a collaborative effort between UC San Diego, Nexleaf Analytics, and The Energy and Resources Institute at New Delhi, India.

“The addition of wireless sensors to cookstoves has created multiple solutions that improve social and economic outcomes for these families in India,” said Angela Baker, director of Qualcomm Wireless Reach. “We are thrilled about the implications of the study and proud to have supported these efforts since the program’s inception.”

Surya tested use of clean-burning cookstoves with sensors in 4,000 Indian homes with support from Leslie and John “Mac” McQuown. Mac McQuown is a member of the Scripps Director’s Council and co-founder/director and principal of Diversified Credit Investments, a firm that manages portfolios of corporate credit risk for institutional investors.

Traditional cooking among the poor involves using homemade cookstoves that inefficiently burn wood, dung, and other forms of biomass. The excessive smoke created while food is cooked not only adds soot to the atmosphere but endangers the respiratory health of those in prolonged contact with that smoke. Gas and electric stoves like those used in the West are prohibitively expensive for such households so most government interventions in recent decades have focused on providing people with more efficient biomass-burning stoves.

The use of more efficient stoves is rewarded by carbon markets but typically the developers and distributors of the stoves have received the benefits rather than the people using them in their homes. Clean cookstoves typically cost around $70 and represent a major household expenditure for people who earn less than $1 per day. The compensation by the new approach was based on the amount of time that the cookstoves were in use. Women in rural villages could make up to $60 per year just by changing their cooking practices.

A major problem women encountered was that the financial incentive was often hard for families to take advantage of because few had bank accounts and those who did had to travel long distances, usually on foot, to go to banks to redeem their credits, which were only issued quarterly. Since the study, the researchers have improved adoption rates in response to the feedback. They worked with telecommunications company Vodafone to make compensation easier. They have changed the mechanism by which participating households are credited, sending money through mobile wallets using the service M-Pesa, which functions similarly to PayPal. Then local “cash-out” agents travel to villages and make cash payments.

“What is especially clever is combining communications technology via the cell phones these families already have to the vesting of carbon credits that have value,” said Mac McQuown. “Solar cells can be added to the stoves to recharge their cell phones and even provide efficient LED lights where no lights currently exist.  Project Surya’s initial 4,000 such stoves have demonstrated the feasibility of the approach, and the Ramanathans are now finding the means to impact one million Indian households with this technology.   My wife and I were thrilled to play a small part is this brilliant experiment that has provided solid evidence that material change in behavior can arise from simple technology changes with attendant economic incentives.”

The researchers are also devising methods to train female entrepreneurs in Surya test locales how to make repairs on the stoves.

“We found that it’s important not just to distribute cookstoves and sensors, but to create a whole ecosystem to sustain usage,” said Nithya Ramanathan.

Related Image Gallery: Project Surya


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