Tuesday, September 21, 2010

US to Give $50 Million for Cookstoves

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced that the US is poised to donate $50 million to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. They area non-profit group dedicated to clean-burning cookstoves to under-developed countries that currently use open fires within their homes.
Such cooking practices create large amounts of carbon monoxide and black carbon soot that can significantly compromise a person's health. As a “foodie” and home cook, this problem is of great concern to me. What I'm confused about is why the U.S. Should be donating such a large amount of money in this down economy.

I'm also concerned about why we are donating to this specific organization in this way. It turns out that there are already many US government agencies and private companies that support this group. Why are we giving $50 million in addition to the money US taxpayers and corporations are already giving them? Other countries have pledged much less.

According to the New York Times:

Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation, one of the founding partners of the alliance, said that the plan was not simply to use donations to buy millions of new stoves and ship them out to the developing world.
Rather, he said, the group hopes to create an entrepreneurial model in which small companies manufacture or buy the stoves close to their markets, taking into account local fuel choices, food consumption patterns and methods of cooking.

There's a problem with this ideal. It turns out that one of the major manufacturers of these stoves is China. How is large scale manufacturing groups in China, who shamelessly belch out tons of greenhouse gasses, a small company model, in practice?

It also turns out that this “solution” has a built it replacement date. It's actually designed to be cheap, and break down, so it has to be replaced every few years:

“The idea is how to create a thriving global industry in cookstoves, driven by consumers’ desire to have these products at a price they can afford,” Mr. Detchon said.
“These stoves don’t have a long lifetime,” he said. “To produce low cost and high volume, you’ll have to replace them relatively frequently, perhaps every two, three or five years. You’ll need a supply chain and business model that delivers them, not on a one-time basis, but as a continuing enterprise.”

How is selling sub-standard equipment to a developing nation a good idea? This group positions itself as highly moral, wanting to help poor people. This sounds like they're taking advantage of them.

The solutions to carbon smoke and soot in the house was fixed hundreds of years ago with much simply, and in some cases less expensive, technologies and practices. While this may be a worthy cause, there are other things that can be done and many of them don't require any money at all.

Move the Stove Outside. An open flam in a closed space not only creates breathing problems, it's a major fire hazard.

Use a Chimney. Even a simple hole in the roof can help direct smoke upwards, and out of the home.

Use a Solar Oven. You can build an effective solar oven for next to nothing. Sure, there are fancy models that cost hundreds of dollars, but you can actually buy/build a cheap, but very effective ovens for much less. Solar ovens have a zero-carbon footprint, where the other cookers do not. Here's the other kicker – Secretary Clinton has known about it, and supported them, for over a year. Why change gears, now?

Photo by Sunil Lal

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