Hillary Clinton’s “Clean Cookstoves” Announcement, Explained

At the Clinton Global Initiative this afternoon, Hillary Clinton explained how improving the health and welfare of millions of people in the developing world could be as simple as changing the kind of stove people use to cook dinner.

Traditional cooking methods are heavily reliant on wood and other biomass for fuel.  In turn, the widespread use of traditional cookstoves has resulted in natural resource depletion in places where wood and other fuel is already hard to come by. This means that people—mostly women—must search farther and farther to find fuel for cooking.   In refugee camps and conflict zones, the search for fuel sometimes exposes women to severe risks to their personal security.

Inefficient cookstoves also contribute to climate change through emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and aerosols such as black carbon.  According to the World Health Organization, exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires is the cause of 1.9 million premature deaths annually. As Secretary Clinton  said today, this is twice the number of people who die from Malaria each year.   Women and children are most at risk.

But what if a cookstove could be introduced throughout the developing world uses less fuel, and burns the fuel it does use in the cleaner fashion? That is the idea behind the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched by Secretary Clinton. (Disclosure: the UN Foundation is leading this alliance.) Fuel-efficient “clean” cookstoves would save lives and release fewer toxins into the atmosphere. Increased fuel efficiency means women would not have to spend their days collecting wood, and instead focus on other more economically productive endeavors.

The Global Clean Cookstove Alliance is a group of fifteen government agencies international organizations, corporations and private philanthropies that will bring this idea to scale. This group will use its considerable clout and resources to help create a sustainable, global market for clean cookstoves. Their goal is to reach 100 million new homes by 2020.

Compared to other global development imperatives, clean cookstoves have not received much attention. But this is precisely the kind of innovation that could make a huge impact in the global fight against poverty, disease, and environmental degradation.

In previous eras technological breakthroughs have been responsible for great leaps forward in the human condition. A relatively cheap polio vaccine, for example, replaced the expensive iron lung contraptions.   It suddenly became much easier—and cheaper—to bring the fight against polio to even the most remote places on the planet.  Today, polio has been nearly wiped off the face of the earth.

The combination of investing in new technologies, then bringing successful innovations to scale, offers the most hopeful prospect for reaching the Millennium Development Goals.  These innovations can come in the most unlikely of places —  apparently, even the kitchen.