The last of the fossil fuels ?

If the story of humankind starts with the invention of fire, then wood is the fuel that changed the world. But fast forward a million or so years to the Anthropocene age, and more than a third of the people on this planet are still so impoverished that they have no alternative. They must either search and gather wood for fuel if they live close to woodlands and forests or purchase the fuel as charcoal in the marketplace.  

The pressure on the world’s forests is intense. When three billion people cook with wood and charcoal each day what is, in principle, a renewable source of energy is overwhelmed by the needs of millions of poor families that have no alternative but to gather wood wherever they can find it, or to cut down young trees if they can’t.

Analysts speak of an energy ladder.  Families are imagined as ascending from biomass fuels like firewood and charcoal, to kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG), and finally to natural gas and then to the most powerful and magical of all fuels: electricity.     

Around 3 billion people in developing countries (mostly women and girls) cook with wood and charcoal. The exposure to smoke and household air pollution kills several million women and young children every year.

For most low-income families in the developing world this idea is a fairy tale. They may have electricity, but in such small quantities that it is used for the most important tasks: lighting, and charging the ubiquitous (and essential) mobile phone.  Why waste precious electricity on something as mundane as cooking?   

It’s a fallacy that biomass used as fuel is somehow carbon neutral and environmentally benign. It’s not. Because the combustion  is so inefficient, a traditional woodstove spews a toxic mix of airborne chemicals that rapidly spread into the household air. One graphic comparison has likened the exposure to the emissions from a typical open cookfire to the smoke given off by 400 cigarettes an hour. Each year, over three million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution from cookstoves burning wood, charcoal, and kerosene.  The worst affected are women and young children.

Petroleum is a valuable resource. It is the basis of a petrochemical industry that produces thousands of products that are used in commerce and industry across the globe. Many of the products made from petroleum are frivolous, wasteful, and a threat to the environment: most single-use plastic products and useless plastic packaging fall into this category.  But many products derived from hydrocarbons are essential components of modern industrial society: lubricants, synthetic rubber, resins, adhesives, and all the hard resilient plastics that are part of almost every manufactured product in the home, the office, and industry.     

You would think that the last thing we would want to do with a valuable resource is to burn it. That level of mindlessness might be justified if oil and gas were the only sources of energy available to industrial society and emerging economies but that is manifestly not the case. In the 21st Century, there is no longer any legitimate excuse for burning fossil hydrocarbons as fuels to produce heat, power, and mobility.

In line with their commitments under the Paris Agreement, many countries have committed to phasing  out the use of coal, oil, and natural gas as fuels, and to substantially reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases before the middle of the century. This includes the largest emitters: China, India, the USA, and Europe. Burning hydrocarbons to power vehicles, heat homes, and fuel industry will thankfully soon be a thing of the past. The transport sector and the built environment are becoming fully electric–energy that is generated by a mix of hydropower, solar energy, wind power, and nuclear energy—none of which produce greenhouse gases or pollutes the urban air. Process heat for industry will be fuelled by hydrogen, biogenic methane, or biofuels. This monumental global transition is well underway.

When oil and natural gas are no longer burned as fuel in industry and transport, these hydrocarbon resources can be put to much better use. One of which, surprisingly, is for cooking.

A street food vendor cooking with charcoal. Port au Prince, Haiti, 2012

In many developing countries, Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) is sold in small, portable, steel containers in neighbourhood stores. When your cylinder in the kitchen runs out of gas, you head out to the nearest store with your empty cylinder and exchange it for a full one. The gas burns with a hot flame which is easily controllable—just a twist of a knob on the stove shuts it down.

LPG is a much cleaner fuel for cooking than wood or charcoal. But its widespread use as a fuel for cooking presents a dilemma. On the one hand, it substantially reduces the burden of chronic respiratory disease in the homes of poor families in the developing world as they switch from wood and charcoal to LPG.  It also relieves the intolerable pressure on the world’s forests (and their biodiversity)—which will eventually recover and flourish if the extraction of wood for cooking declines. On the other hand, it is a hydrocarbon fuel that is manufactured in petroleum refineries that not only  produce substantial quantities of greenhouse gases but are supplied by crude oil from wells and oil rigs where leaks, spills, catastrophic accidents, and environmental disasters are often horrifically destructive.

A cleaner alternative. Haiti 2014.

By the middle of the 21st century, the oil and gas industry will be very different.  A vastly scaled-down version of the sprawling, pollution-prone, noxious industry we are familiar with now will produce many fewer products in smaller more specialised petrochemical plants. Most pipelines will have fallen into disuse and abandoned because there is no longer a market for fossil fuels. High-quality liquid hydrocarbons, mostly transported by rail and road, will provide feedstocks to the petrochemical industry. But bottled LPG gas will be a valuable product, and in the developing regions of Africa, Asia and South America, this household fuel will be essential if deforestation is to be curtailed and reversed.

Will millions of poor families in developing countries ever climb the energy ladder to the very top and plug in their electric stoves?  Only if they can somehow raise themselves out of poverty, and a cursory glance at the global economic environment now firmly in the grip of the worsening climate crisis renders this hopeful scenario close to impossible for poor families that have no electricity and cook over a wood fire in a smoke-filled kitchen.  So will LPG for cooking be a life-saver?  Have we finally found a cleaner fossil fuel?   


Martin Bush is a Director of the Canadian environmental organisation Neighbours for the Planet. In 2021, he was working on an international programme aimed at transitioning households in Nigeria from fuel wood and charcoal over to LPG for cooking. Dr. Bush has written extensively about the climate crisis. In his new bookClimate Change and Renewable Energy: How to End the Climate Crisis, he explains how solar energy, wind power, and the other renewable sources of energy are the key to ending the climate crisis. The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Also, check out the content at the Neighbours for the Planet website. NftP is one  of the most progressive and innovative non-profit organisations in Canada working on environmental issues and the climate crisis.

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