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LPG World editorial: Clean cooking’s watershed moment?

  • : LPG
  • 24/05/16

African clean cooking schemes could prove to be an early energy transition success story now that world leaders view them as environmental imperatives

The $2.2bn in funding pledged for clean cooking programmes in Africa over the next five years, announced at the IEA's Clean Cooking Summit in Paris on 14 May, could be a "turning point", according to the agency's executive director Fatih Birol. Not only would this be true in terms of tackling what is a long-neglected problem. It is also true for the LPG industry, which has been extolling the benefits of a transition to LPG in sub-Saharan Africa for many years.

Other than the dozen or so individual financial commitments made by governments and organisations, what resonated most from the event was just how achievable transitioning sub-Saharan Africa to cleaner fuels such as LPG actually is. Often the immediate reaction is to balk at the challenges — the lack of infrastructure, the lack of regulatory frameworks, the corruption, the cost of the LPG and equipment. Yet this was when it was looked at purely through the prism of the market. Now it is an environmental and social imperative.

Many of the political leaders from Europe, Africa and the US that spoke noted that greenhouse emissions from cooking were comparable to the airline and shipping sectors, yet tackling the former is far less complex, less expensive and receives scant recognition in comparison with the latter two. "We can fix it now… it is not high-tech, it is low-tech," Norway's prime minister Jonas Gahr Store told delegates.

Another often ignored part of the issue is how disproportionately women are affected by cooking with harmful solid biomass fuels — perhaps an underlying factor behind the many years of neglect at a national and international level. This is a gender issue, both Birol and Tanzania's first female president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, noted. The obvious health and social benefits from the transition to clean cooking will be most keenly felt by women and their children, who are at home breathing in the smoke from open fires. Several of the speakers, including African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina and World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus, even spoke of their own experience of growing up in a household with open fires, and the consequent unnecessary suffering their mothers in particular had to endure.

LPG is not the only solution here — others mentioned included electric cookers, biogas, bioethanol and cleaner cooking stoves. And as a fossil fuel, it will ultimately be replaced at some stage by renewable alternatives. But it is the best solution right now for large parts of the region. "LPG is the most efficient in terms of its benefits and its ease of use," Togo's president Faure Gnassingbe said. LPG markets can develop in the region through subsidies and LPG price regulation to moderate volatility, while countries must also invest in domestic LPG production as well as import and distribution infrastructure, he said. Each country will be different, but it is "well within our reach", Gnassingbe added.

From pledge to realisation

The sub-Saharan African region and the LPG industry must now work with foreign governments, financial institutions and private-sector companies to ensure that the large sums pledged are invested in a pragmatic and fruitful way. The IEA will come back in a year's time to report on the progress of the various commitments made at the summit and will provide updates online in an effort to ensure progress and transparency, Birol said.

There is reason for cautious hope. The feasibility of achieving the transition and the relatively low levels of foreign investment involved — and the huge opportunities for LPG companies that will emerge — could create the conditions for success of a kind that has so far eluded many other such ambitions. It would be a huge boon for the world to have one such success story to point to by 2030 in its long, hard struggle to transition to a cleaner energy future.

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