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The Stuff of Climate Change: Negotiations and Cook Stoves

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View toward Kathmandu and the Himalayas.

Are cook stoves a hotter climate-change item than international negotiations?

Climate Talks Wrap – Progress or Retreat?

Last week in Cancun, Mexico, officials from the 190+ nations wrapped up international climate talks at the 16th Conference of the Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (a k a COP-16).

The somewhat upbeat press release following adjournment declared the “UN Conference on Climate Change Delivers Balanced Package of Decisions, Restores Faith in Multilateral Process.” However, a perusal of the UNFCCC Web site reveals a “package” that’s modest at best. There was progress around the edges on a climate fund and deforestation. But as far as slowing emissions goes, the only agreement was to agree to continue talking.

With each year, it becomes increasingly unlikely we’ll be able to avoid global temperatures exceeding the internationally agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). And yet the COP-16 negotiators agreed to consider [pdf] “strengthening the long-term global goal … to a global average temperature rise of 1.5°C.” Do you get a sense of denial here?

A Lesser Known Environmental Conference Examines a Lesser Known (but Big) Problem: Cook Stoves

While the climate world was focused on Cancun, I found myself in Nepal at a conference sponsored by the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics. It provided an interesting counterpoint to the mega-issues swirling around Mexico. We covered a variety of seemingly “small” issues related to sustainable regional development, including cook stoves. If you think cook stoves have little relevance to the big, global climate issues of our day, you might be wrong.

Worldwide, 90 percent of rural households cook or heat with solid fuel — usually wood or cow dung but also charcoal, coal and crop residues. It’s not unusual for 65 percent of a rural household’s energy consumption to come from firewood. And most burn the wood using an open fire. Huge problems ensue:

As I said, a huge problem, but one that should have a simple solution — in theory. No high tech needed here; we’re talking about getting households to switch from open fires to relatively simple, more efficient wood-fueled stoves that use less wood and produce less pollution. Provide subsidies to rural households and the problem is solved, right? Not quite.

Solutions to Cook-Stove Problem Falling Short of the Mark

Subsidized programs have been running in countries like India and China for years. Judging by the papers presented in Nepal, I’d say things aren’t going as well as expected.

  • Krishna Prasad Pant reported that despite subsidies and what would seem an obvious desire to avoid the ill effects of indoor smoke, acceptance of the new stoves has been slow. Apparently just like U.S. consumers (remember irrational exuberance?), Indians and Nepalese can act irrationally and such irrationality can frustrate government programs.
  • Mani Nepal, Apsara Nepal, and Kristine Grimsrud found that Nepalese households with improved cook stoves were using more firewood annually than households with open-fire cooking. “Unbelievable” was one word the authors used to title their talk.

Other points to keep in mind:

Delivering the keynote address at the Nepal meeting was Elinor Ostrom, political science professor at Indiana University and winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. She observed that governments can declare big programs that mandate huge changes, but in the final analysis  changes must be made one person at a time. The cook-stove programs are a prime example of how things can go wrong when the human element is not attended to adequately. Maybe the results of the COP meetings are not that critical after all.