Indoor Coal Use Plagues Poor

Over 400 million in China lack clean cooking fuel.
An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
2011-10-17
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A young woman prepares to cook a meal on an eco-friendly stove in the outskirts of Beijing, Aug. 1, 2007.
AFP

Despite rapid progress in bringing electricity to rural areas, China will suffer from coal pollution in millions of households for decades to come, a new report says.

The study by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) found that China has provided electricity access to 500 million rural dwellers since 1990, leaving only 8 million without power by 2009.

But 423 million people, or nearly one-third of the population, still lack access to clean cooking facilities due to antiquated coal stoves, the IEA said.

The report on financing energy access for the poor estimated that 377 million rural residents and 46 million in China's urban areas were still using "highly polluting" coal stoves to cook food.

Although China has made great strides in building electricity and gas networks, the study predicted that 261 million people, or 19 percent of China's population, will still be using the traditional stoves in 2030, nearly two decades from now.

The study, an advance excerpt from the IEA's annual World Energy Outlook, concluded that "access to affordable and reliable energy services is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving health."

Yet, billions of the world's poor continue to lack access to electricity and clean cooking facilities. "This situation is expected to change only a little by 2030 unless more vigorous action is taken," the IEA said.

Those using biomass and coal stoves in China represent only a fraction of the 2.6 billion who need cleaner cooking fuel worldwide. But the majority are in developing Asia, including 836 million in India, according to the IEA.

Stove programs

The numbers in both China and India are also expected to remain stubbornly high, despite development efforts and strong economic growth.

Kevin Jianjun Tu, senior associate for energy and climate issues at the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Washington, said China's government has sponsored replacement programs since the 1980s to provide cleaner-burning stoves.

The stove programs have received international support from countries including the United States.

But part of the problem is conditions in remote areas of the south and west.

"It's rather difficult for the government to reach to the poor in those parts of the country," said Tu. "Even with the expected economic growth in the future, there may still be a substantial number of the poor left behind."

The IEA study makes little distinction between the effects of the oldest coal stoves and those that burn briquettes, which were widely distributed to improve efficiency and emissions throughout the 1990s.

In 2004, a joint study by the University of California, Tsinghua University, Renmin University and the Chinese Centers for Disease Control said that many of the newer coal stoves still lacked flues and "cannot be considered improved from the standpoint of IAQ (indoor air quality) and human health."

While air quality in China has drawn attention as an international issue, indoor air pollution remains a serious health threat. In 2007, a controversial World Bank study blamed indoor air pollution for 300,000 premature deaths in China per year.

Urban cooking

Tu said that although most of the problems with coal stoves for cooking are in rural areas, a significant number remain in cities other than Beijing, where air quality rules have grown increasingly strict.

"They haven't been entirely eliminated for low-income families because coal is still very cheap to use," he said. Even some low-end restaurants in urban areas continue to cook with coal, said Tu.

Coal briquette stoves were still used for heat in poorer neighborhoods of Beijing as recently as last winter, despite subsidized electricity programs, according to the official English-language China Daily.

In April, the city announced it would "bid farewell to coal burning" with a new five-year clean air action plan, but thermal power plants are still expected to use coal.

Although the IEA projections of those without clean cooking facilities in 2030 are large, they reflect a "new policies scenario" that assumes current programs and plans will be implemented.

The scenario calls for U.S. $21 billion in investment to provide cleaner cooking fuel for 860 million people worldwide over the next two decades.

Solutions include advanced biomass cookstoves, which would cost about U.S. $50 each (318 yuan), and bottled gas stoves, costing about U.S. $60 (383 yuan) with a fuel tank, the IEA said.

China has also been a leader in using biogas replacements for cooking with 5 million installations last year, the study said.

The government has supported programs to use methane as a cooking fuel replacement for straw and wood in rural areas for several years. In western Gansu province, for example, authorities have given farmers materials to build methane gas ponds utilizing pig wastes, the official Xinhua news agency said in 2005.

More recently in August, the Ministry of Health said it had replaced over 1.5 million old fashioned open top cooking stoves under a government program during the previous 31 months. The older unvented stoves emit fluorine and arsenic from coal burning indoors.

Under the program, residents were given subsidies to buy enclosed stoves with flues to the outside, Xinhua said.

High-polluting coal remains China's main fuel source, accounting for 71 percent of total energy consumption, according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates. In the first half of the year, coal production climbed 12.7 percent to 1.77 billion tons, the China National Coal Association said.

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