Billions of people cook over open fires. Are gas stoves the solution? (2024)

Could changing the way you cook help fight global warming? If you’ve considered this question and you live in a rich country, you’ve probably been thinking about whether to ditch your gas stove for an electric or induction cooktop. But for nearly a third of the world’s population, even that gas stove would be a big step up from the preindustrial cooking methods still in wide use across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some 2.3 billion people regularly cook their meals over open fires or on makeshift stoves using fuels like wood, animal dung, charcoal, and coal — methods that generate deadly local air pollution and are far more carbon-intensive than the electric and gas stoves enjoyed by the relatively wealthy of the world.

The lack of access to these “clean cooking” technologies is responsible for 3.7 million premature deaths annually, due to the harms of breathing smoke from cooking fires (which often accumulates indoors), according to a report from the International Energy Agency, or IEA. Fortunately, the total number of people without access to clean cooking is falling, largely due to progress in Asia and Latin America. But in Africa, that number is trending in the opposite direction, as campaigns for clean cooking have not been able to keep up with massive population growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In an effort to address this, representatives of 55 nations convened in Paris last week for the Summit on Clean Cooking in Africa, organized by the IEA. The marquee announcement of the conference was a $2.2 billion pledge by governments and the private sector to increase access to clean cooking in Africa.

While cooking disparities have been recognized for decades as a health crisis and driver of gender-based inequality in the world’s poorest regions — given that women are typically responsible for cooking in these households and thus most directly exposed to indoor air pollution — the climate crisis has given the issue additional urgency in recent years. Darby Jack, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, attended last week’s summit and told Grist that “there was a fair amount of focus on clean cooking as a low-hanging climate fix,” in contrast to the issue’s longstanding framing as primarily a public health crisis.

Smoke-spewing cookstoves and fires are responsible for around 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — roughly equivalent to the carbon contribution of global air travel. But besides being an easier problem to solve than the notoriously difficult-to-decarbonize aviation sector, universal access to clean cooking would bring a litany of attendant health and welfare benefits, and help preserve ecosystems and biodiversity threatened by unsustainable wood-harvesting methods.

At the summit, a host of signatories including countries, civil society organizations, and corporations issued a declaration “making 2024 the pivotal year for clean cooking.” But conspicuously absent from the declaration was any mention of what Jack described as a “perennial debate” among advocates of clean cooking: the question of what kind of stoves count as appropriate improvements on preindustrial methods and, in particular, the role of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, in addressing the crisis.

“Is it smart, is it ethical, is it good for the Earth to promote a fossil fuel, when in other domains we’re trying to move away from fossil fuels?” asked Jack, whose own answer to this question, and that of many other experts, is yes — for now.

“Long term, we want to electrify everything and have renewable energy, but that’s a long way away,” Jack added.

In the U.S., Jack’s work has involved advocating for moving people from gas to electric stoves, but he believes Africans can’t afford to wait for the infrastructure and investment necessary to avoid using LPG as a “transition fuel.”

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“The ideal thing would be cooking with electricity from a clean grid, and that’s just really far away in Africa. It’ll take billions of dollars to get the grid ready for electric cooking, and further billions to get the grid clean,” Jack told Grist. And in the meantime, he noted, the industrialized world is busy building out natural gas infrastructure. “The idea we should tell Africa they can’t use gas for environmental reasons, while we’re not just using it but further developing it, is a profound hypocrisy,” he added.

Other researchers disagree. One of them is Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Although he considers Jack a friend with a reasonable position on the issue, Kammen contends that the adoption of LPG stoves “slows down the process for us to switch to electric cooking” in Africa, and he argues that the rapidly increasing cost-effectiveness of electric cooking is underappreciated by health researchers.

Kammen told Grist that he sees the enthusiasm for LPG stoves as stemming from their role as “a lifeline being thrown to the fossil fuel companies — fossil fuel companies want to keep them on the agenda.”

Indeed, the Paris summit was heavily attended by gas companies, and despite the lack of official recognition of LPG in the event’s declaration, some in the industry celebrated the attention as a “turning point” for the fuel. At the conference, the Dutch commodities trading multinational Vitol announced $550 million worth of clean cooking investments in Africa, partly in the form of LPG infrastructure. The interest in clean cooking as a climate solution has also given rise to a growing carbon credit market in which polluters such as airlines buy “cookstove credits” that pay for some portion of the transition from older to newer forms of household cooking — though a study Kammen co-authored this year showed that such credits often dramatically overestimate the emissions reductions that the new stoves achieve.

Billions of people cook over open fires. Are gas stoves the solution? (2024)

FAQs

What are the arguments against gas stoves? ›

Gas stoves contribute to climate change.

Burning fossil fuels (mainly gas) in US homes and businesses accounts for roughly one-tenth of the country's carbon emissions. Cutting this climate pollution is essential for the United States to meet its climate targets and to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Are more fires caused by gas or electric stoves? ›

It's not just who is doing the cooking, however, that indicates risk; the equipment they're cooking with also makes a difference. Electric stoves are 2.5 times more likely than gas stoves to have a fire, and the losses associated with those fires are higher as well.

How much does a gas stove pollute the air? ›

The Stanford study tested gas stoves in 53 homes. All of the stoves leaked methane gas, even when turned off. These leaks equaled 76% of their total methane gas emissions. Both methane and nitrogen dioxide contribute to air pollution by forming ground-level ozone and smog.

How do gas stoves affect society? ›

Gas stoves also release formaldehyde and benzene, a known carcinogen, and the study's researchers said the overall exposure to pollutants from gas stoves could be responsible for 200,000 cases of childhood asthma each year.

Are gas stoves worse for the environment than electric? ›

During cooking, electric stoves can emit 3x as much carbon dioxide as gas stoves, which again is a gas known to harm our planet. To their credit, the electric stove does not emit gas when idle so there are more health benefits to you and your family.

Are gas stoves really better? ›

Both gas and electric ranges have advantages, depending on what and how you cook. Gas ranges offer more responsive heat control for switching between searing meats or stir-frying veggies, while the dry, even heat of electric range ovens may work better for certain baked goods.

Do electric stoves shut off automatically? ›

So here we're going to go through some simple guidance. Starting with a quick summary. Modern ovens will shut off on their own as they have failsafe built-in. Digital regulators ensure there is a maximum run time of 12 hours before shut down.

Which is safer electric or gas stove? ›

Both types of stoves carry a risk of burns and starting fires, so it's important to use any stove with caution. That said, electric stoves generally have a slight edge in terms of safety. Gas stoves have open flames, which can easily spread if a towel, oven mitt or another flammable object gets too close.

Is it cheaper to have gas or electric appliances? ›

In most cases, gas appliances are cheaper to operate but typically cost more upfront. Compared to electricity, gas is a more efficient heating fuel. As far as safety is concerned, gas and electric appliances may have safety hazards.

Should I get rid of my gas stove? ›

But as ever more research emerges demonstrating the potential health risks (and associated environmental impacts) of gas stoves, we've changed our stance: Switching from a gas stove to an electric version as soon as possible could be worth the expense and effort for many households.

How unhealthy are gas stoves? ›

Studies have also found that unburned natural gas leaks from stoves—and this gas contains benzene, a known carcinogen. In addition, cooking in general creates fine particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5), a known irritant that can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems.

How dirty is a gas stove really? ›

Numerous other studies have concluded that gas stoves are a major source of indoor air pollution and can release harmful chemicals like cancer-causing benzene even when not in use. Gas stoves are also problematic from a climate standpoint. Methane, the primary component in gas, is a potent greenhouse gas.

Do chefs prefer gas or electric ovens? ›

Better Control. Another reason the pros prefer gas is the control they have over the heat. Just as electricity takes some time to heat your pan, it also takes some time to adjust in temperatures, whether you need fast heat or need to cool the contents immediately.

What to replace a gas stove with? ›

For the cooktop, induction is really the best replacement for gas, according to Designer Appliances. Why? It mirrors the responsiveness of gas while being more efficient, safer, easier to clean, and healthier for your indoor air quality.

Do gas stoves pollute when off? ›

The study found that the average natural gas stove is estimated to emit 0.8-1.3 percent of the gas used as unburned methane, and more than 75 percent of this leakage occurs while the stove is turned off.

What are the pros and cons of a gas stove? ›

Gas stoves have all the potential to give you a delicious meal, but they require more finesse in use than their electric counterparts. You can ignite your cooking creativity but it may be a bit tricky to safely shut off if you are a novice.

Why do chefs prefer gas stoves over electric? ›

Electric stovetops take so much time that most chefs just take the pan off the burner to cool it faster. Gas is practically immediate when it comes to making adjustments since the flame can quickly be diminished or ignited.

What is a safer alternative to a gas stove? ›

Electric and induction stoves do not pose the same threat of health risks caused by air pollution and they outperform gas when it comes to cooking time and energy efficiency.

What is safer, a gas or an electric stove? ›

That said, electric stoves generally have a slight edge in terms of safety. Gas stoves have open flames, which can easily spread if a towel, oven mitt or another flammable object gets too close. An electric burner can catch things on fire as well, but it takes a lot longer for something to go up in flames.

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