Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Low Emissions Cooking

The Science and Development Network had a couple of interesting articles on cookers, cookers that only require freely available, renewable fuels and cookers that produce less pollution. Environmental degradation and air pollution are serious threats in all countries but especially in developing countries.

Solar cookers have been mentioned on this blog in the past. Now a solar cooker made mainly of cardboard boxes and other cheap, accessible materials has won a prize that will fund the manufacture of the product for developing countries. It's called the Kyoto Box, after the Kyoto Protocol. It's very simple and the fact that it can be made from easy to obtain materials is important where people earn little or no money.

The inventor emphasizes the Kyoto Box's simplicity. We hear a lot of hot air about high technology solutions, such as diagnosing TB using satellite technology or supporting people on antiretroviral therapy using mobile phones. Not that there is anything wrong with these, but they are usually not accessible to people in developing countries and not appropriate to countries with poor infrastructure.

I have heard from several sources that solar cookers are a hard sell, partly because their use can disrupt a daily pattern that people are reluctant to change. For example, women (who usually do the cooking) go to the market in the morning and spend a good while there. They don't just buy and sell things, going to the market is an opportunity to gather with friends and neighbours and keep informed. Yet this is the time when you need to be cooking the midday meal, so cooking by sun may not appeal to everyone.

However, the solar cooker can be used for other things, drying fruit and vegetables. You can produce, for example, sun dried tomatoes, bananas, mangoes, dried mushrooms, fish, etc. Many products need to be sold or preserved and solar cookers can help speed up drying and preservation without requiring much labour. They can also be used for pasteurising water in areas where contaminated water causes much sickness and many deaths.

The Kyoto Box is estimated to save up to two tonnes of carbon emissions per family per year and may be eligible for carbon credits. I hate the thought that people in developing countries will be forced to subsidise the wasteful habits of people in rich countries, as they do that enough already. But I hope the availability of cheap solar cookers will help some people to reduce their daily costs and reap the benefits of a very clean and completely renewable source of fuel.

The other article was about a stove that produces less soot than conventional cooking methods. Soot is the second biggest contributor to climate change, so reducing soot production could have quite an impact on efforts to slow down climate change. Soot and other emissions from traditional cookers also give rise to health problems in the households that use them. Acute respiratory infections are responsible for around 20% of deaths in young children (another 20% being caused by water borne conditions).

This cooker is a problem because of its cost. They cost $20 to make, which is way beyond the means of most poor people, many of whom earn $2 a day or less. It remains to be seen whether rich countries are willing to pay for an intermediate technology that may help us out of the mess that we have created and continue to create.

Whether rich countries are willing to participate in reducing global warming or not, it is good to see intermediate technologies promoted in developing countries. Especially intermediate technologies that can be developed and produced in those countries without expensive materials and expertise that are virtually unavailable there. Far too much aid money is spent on advanced technologies, such as pharmaceutical products, genetically modified organisms and military projects. Spending aid money on these technologies only benefits the rich multinationals who produce them. Aid money should be spent on poor people, not rich people.


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