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Clean Stoves for the Third World

Millions of people worldwide die every year because of primitive cooking stoves. Around the globe, helpers ranging from Hillary Clinton to African entrepreneurs are making inroads.

When the United Nations, Hillary Clinton and Glenn Beck are exercised over the same idea, something must be cooking. Bad pun aside, that's what it is — cook stoves for the Third World that protect life, health and the environment, while answering the age-old question of what's for dinner.

In September, the U.N. General Assembly kicked off the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a part of the Clinton Global Initiative promoted by the U.N. Foundation. As for Beck, the Fox News Channel talk show host who is neither for nor against the stoves, he sees Clinton's spending $50 million on promotion and production as part of an elitist plot to redistribute the world's wealth.

Back to the stoves. According to the U.N. News Centre, this action, backed by U.N. Environment Programme, "holds the promise of saving lives, uplifting health, improving regional environments, reducing deforestation, empowering local entrepreneurs, speeding development, and helping to stem global climate change" by dramatically boosting the efficiency of "some 3 billion cook stoves across Africa, Asia and Latin America."

The reduction in global deforestation would be a result of felling fewer trees for the wood and other biomass used in the Third World's primitive cook stoves. The environment would also benefit in other ways. Research conducted by the Atmospheric Brown Cloud Project, also UNEP-supported, indicates that black carbon — a suspected villain in the accelerating melting rates of glaciers in mountain ranges like the Himalayas — could account for 10 to 40 percent of climate change.

The biggest threat from primitive stoves is to humans. In addition to killing almost 2 million people annually, it is estimated that constant exposure, especially that of women and young children, to smoke from poorly ventilated areas causes non-fatal, or at least not as quickly fatal, illnesses such as cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma and lung and eye diseases.

In sharp contrast to the life and environment-threatening damages of wood and carbon burning cook stoves, their clean cousins run on the energy from plants and materials derived from plants (biomass),  gas, or solar power. The new-generation clean stoves also create room for local small businesses to develop and market the products. Ghana's Toyola Energy, for example, in its first three years sold 64,000 stoves — and offset more than 44,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Just as Secretary Clinton's initiative is not brand new — it builds on existing national projects in India and Peru, to cite two examples, and is directly related to individual efforts like those of 29-year-old Peter Thuo in Kenya — the clean stove concept is itself an old one.

In the 18th century, Swiss physicist Horace de Saussure invented a "hot box" that used the rays of the sun to heat water to 228 degrees F. And in the next century, while on an expedition in South Africa, English astronomer John Herschel used a similarly constructed device to cook his meals. As John Perlin noted in an earlier Miller-McCune article, a cardboard version of this solar stove won the Financial Times Climate Challenge in 2009.

While today's clean stoves may serve the same function as the hot box of yesteryear, any resemblance ends there. Available in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, they come in five different types: natural draft rocket stoves; fan stoves; semi-gasifier stoves; natural draft top lighting stoves; and institutional stoves.

Proponents of the new clean stove concept also represent a wide variety of interested parties. In 2010, super chef José Andrés, a firm believer in the principle of teaching people to fish rather than giving them a fish, made several trips to beleaguered Haiti to peach the gospel of solar-powered stoves.

"The kitchens, called parabolic, look like metal beach umbrellas," Andres explains. "A rack in the middle holds a large pot. I showed the village women how to direct the concave panels toward the sun and harness the energy required for long, continuous heat."

Given that Haiti, besides recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake, is almost totally deforested, the attraction of the solar stove is magnified. As the U.N. put it, "Less than 2 percent of the Haiti's original forest cover still exists. One major reason is Haiti's dependence on wood and charcoal for cooking. Improved stoves, training and education can help alleviate this domino-effect problem."

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hopes to put new, clean stoves in 100 million homes. When Clinton announced the Alliance in September, she said, "Today, because of technological breakthroughs, new carbon financing tools and growing private sector engagement, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world — stoves that still cost as little as $25."

"The next time you sit down with your family to eat, take a moment to imagine the smell of the smoke, feel it in your lungs, see the soot building up on the walls. Then come find us at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves."