Most Americans only cook over a fire on camping trips. For the less adventurous American, there are roasted marshmallows over backyard bonfires. And as for charcoal, that’s reserved for July 4th, when we celebrate with fireworks and hot dogs.
Now imagine that firewood and charcoal were your everyday source of cooking fuel. Instead of cooking your pasta on a stove powered by electricity or gas, you would have to hold a cauldron over a fire.
What seems like a blast to the past is actually a startling picture of the present. In sub-Saharan Africa, four-fifths of the entire population rely on solid biomass for cooking. That means that 727 million people depend on mostly wood and charcoal to heat their dinners and their homes.
Not only is that very time-consuming and inefficient, but it is also deadly. Cooking with biomass indoors leads to exposure to carbon monoxide, toxic particulates, and formaldehyde. As a result, every year, nearly 600,000 Africans die of household air pollution. A majority of these deaths are children under 5 years of age; in fact, more than one-third of all child deaths in Africa are caused by indoor air pollution, generally manifesting in an acute respiratory tract infection.
Indoor air pollution is also associated with an increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, asthma, cataracts, and tuberculosis. Further studies are now linking indoor air pollution to adverse pregnancy outcomes, ischemic heart disease, and nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. In sum, indoor air pollution is a major cause of child mortality and chronic, non-communicable diseases mostly diagnosed in older cohorts.
And this pollution doesn’t just hurt the health of the human; it hurts the environment as well. Unsurprisingly, forest degradation – largely motivated by wood collection and charcoal production – is a huge environmental concern in sub-Saharan Africa. A general lack of agro-forestry management has led to degraded ecosystems around many vulnerable populations. Just last year, production and consumption of biomass fuels required 300 million tons of wood in sub-Saharan Africa. If that amount were to be reduced by 50%, the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates that it would save 60-190 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions. As it stands today, land degradation is the leading cause of emissions in Africa.
So how do we stop households in Africa from burning charcoal and firewood? The answer is simple: make electricity universally accessible. The execution of this, however, is not so simple, and to get at the heart of the issue, one must examine the classic urban-rural divide.
Of the 621 million people in Africa who do not have access to electricity, a whopping 80% live in rural areas. Most electricity grids in Africa are concentrated in urban areas. Poor households in rural areas cannot afford access to these grids: the farther one gets from the central energy grid, the more expensive the connection fee. For example, increasing the distance from an existing power distribution line in Tanzania from 30 meters to 70 meters would increase the connection charge form $297 to $871. And there are additional costs (such as inspection fees) that further increase the price of plugging in.
Governments can lower this barrier to access by reducing up-front costs through subsidies and low-cost credit, or by incorporating connection costs into tariffs that are paid over the long-term. However, most governments in Africa require full up-front payment. For many rural households with no access to banking services, this barrier is basically insurmountable.
And even if a poor household could gain access to the grid, it would struggle to pay the tariff. Across the continent, tariffs are among the highest in the world: a woman living in a village in northern Nigeria spends 60-80 times per unit more for her energy than a resident of New York City. But one does not need to cross oceans in order to find evidence of staggering energy inequality – that very same rural Nigerian woman also spends 30 times as much as her wealthier counterpart in Lagos, who lives connected to the grid.
For the 46% of Africans who live on less than $1.25 per day, a basic household electricity supply of 500kWh costs $0.74 per day. This would consume 60% of their daily income.
And so, because they have been priced out of the electricity market, the poor are using highly inefficient – and in some cases, deadly – energy sources instead. The African Progress Panel estimates that the 138 million households of people living on less than $2.50 per day are spending $10 billion annually on energy products – i.e. charcoal, candles, kerosene, and firewood. The World Bank uses an even higher estimate – $38 billion annually – to factor in the cost of unpaid labor of women and children collecting firewood.
On the flip side, the African Progress Panel estimates that universal access to electricity will require an investment of $55 billion per year until 2030. While this figure seems quite large, African nations should not be discouraged by the initial price tag. The upfront cost of infrastructure (the equipment) will eventually give way to much lower variable costs of production (the electricity). Over the long run, then, universal electricity access would be less costly to society. In other words, by using products like charcoal and kerosene, which seem to be cheaper alternatives at first glance, the poor are ultimately spending more on energy.
In the next part of this series, I will summarize the African Progress Panel’s recommendations to reach this ambitious goal of universal access by 2030, and what role climate change plays in all of this.
Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. This article was originally published on S&S November 5th, 2015.