Cleaner Cooking, Healthier Planet

By Sharon Cousins, 3rd in a 3-part series
Part 1: Solar Cooking: Clean, Bright, and Accessible
Part 2: Out of the Smoke, Into the Sun

Deforestation leads to desertification, in many places around the world. Burgeoning human populations raise carbon dioxide levels to new highs, until declining vegetative populations can no longer keep up with converting it back into life-giving oxygen. Lands that supported trees that processed the carbon dioxide that is now choking and overheating this planet lie barren, topsoil eroding, blowing away in increasing drought. Removing vegetative cover changes the temperature of the soil, which changes the temperature of the air above that place. Rains come less. The land withers.

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In some locations, deforestation is primarily due to urbanization or agriculture. In many others, however, significant deforestation–or the last over-harvest of a devastated land–comes from the never-ending need for firewood or charcoal for about half the world’s population.

solar cookingThree billion humans–divide by five and call it six hundred million families–cook with wood, charcoal, coal, crop residue, and dung, the last two being particularly tragic as they are needed to rebuild what soil hasn’t already washed away after deforestation. I abhor it when new high-tech but simple and more efficient stoves tout as a virtue that they can burn plant and animal “waste.” There is no such thing as plant and animal “waste” in a depleted agricultural area. Burning crop residue and manure, no matter how cleanly, is a desperation move. There are better ways to cook than with valuable commodities for sustainable agriculture.

A cook-fire may not seem like much, but we are talking 600,000,000 families cooking over primitive fires every day, and someone cooking for a family may have more than one fire–or a bigger fire or a fire burning longer–to make more than one dish. That many fires add up to a lot of smoke, and wood smoke is much more toxic than many people realize. These smoky fires are often in poorly ventilated huts, but what smoke isn’t absorbed by the walls and the lungs of the women and small children who spend so much time in the huts eventually filters out, riding the air currents, soaring in the thermals.

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Some of it rises so high it crosses oceans. Clouds of particulates–much of it black carbon (soot) from cooking smoke–circle the globe, cutting us off from the sun, Earth’s only source of outside power. Invisible but equally deadly, the carbon dioxide mounts.

At a rough estimate, a solar cooker in a mostly sunny country that is used whenever reasonable can reduce need for solid fuel by one ton per year, reducing cooking output of carbon dioxide by 1.8 tons annually, while significantly reducing black carbon and other noxious chemical emissions and particulates. Get three solar cookers into the hands of families with the training to maximize their use and you have a savings equal to the lower end figures for what a family car pumps out. Program costs that have successfully accomplished this have ranged from around $50.00 (US) to $100.00 per family, (often for either two simple cookers or for a box oven that cooks more than one dish at a time) and include the training and follow-up that leads to successful adoption. This is significant carbon reduction at bargain prices. Multiplied by six hundred million families, solar cookers could reduce annual carbon emissions by at least 1,080,000,000 (one billion, eighty million) tons each year, in a way of life that can become sustainable once it takes root.

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Imagine the clouds of smoke, back when all of these solar cookers at the Iridimi Refugee Camp in Chad--some fourteen thousand in all--were smoky fires.

Solar cookers and integrated combinations of solar, more efficient bio-fuel stoves, and retained heat cooking not only clear the air and slow the tide of deforestation, they promote reforestation. Many villagers and farmers plant trees with savings from having a solar cooker, for shade or food production. Reforestation projects enjoy increased success when people are not tempted to steal growing trees for fuel. Adoption of solar cooking saves time, often used to increase the size of gardens or fields, which can trap carbon dioxide and keep it occupied with the healthy soil-to-plant-to-compost cycle. When you add to the initial savings the additional carbon dioxide reduction from new trees and bigger gardens or fields, the picture grows even brighter.

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It is very likely that part of the haze in this photo of the Great Rift Valley taken near Eldoret Kenya is smoke from cooking fires. Solar cookers can give us all cleaner air to breathe, in addition to helping preserve what trees remain.

So why don’t we hear more about this thrifty technology with so much to offer? Many of us who work for solar cooking on an international level wonder that very same thing. Solar Cookers International‘s tireless representatives to the United Nations in New York and Geneva work hard to gain recognition for modern solar cooking and the difference it could make. Other volunteers work to heighten the awareness of government agencies and the big relief organizations such as Red Cross and Salvation Army. Recognition comes so slowly, though projects all over the world have shown that solar cooking can be a fundamental part of a cleaner cooking solution.

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Dr. Arline J. Lederman (AJ), SCI's New York representative to the United Nations says, I find it a very worthwhile challenge to advocate for a better world on behalf of solar cooking and its potential for positive impact on the earth's balance. I think the time is right for success.

Over and over, when the topic of cleaner cooking in the developing world comes up, most of the attention goes to a combination of cleaner-burning bio-fuel stoves and subsidized oil or propane or natural gas. All of those options still pollute, though none of them as badly as a three stone fire. All of them involve either paying for fuel or still needing to find or buy wood or charcoal, even if in somewhat lesser amounts, unless people burn the manure and crop residue that should be going into fields or compost piles. Most of those options increase the wealth of the world’s wealthiest at the expense of the most disadvantaged. The oil crowd loves those subsidies.

We are choking our planet with smoke and fumes. It is time for the simple, direct technology of solar cooking to take a higher place on the list of clean solutions. Solar cooking programs and solar integrated cooking systems can make a big difference in the environment we share. Greater support and acceptance for these programs will give us all cleaner air to breathe, promote reforestation of some of the most devastated places on the planet, and help to mitigate unfavorable climate change. Support solar cooking for a healthier planet.

solar cooking

Want to help? Scroll down to the bottom of Part 2 in this series to learn what you can do.

Learn more about Global Dimming and Soot:

Professor Ramanathan is an authority on brown clouds and the Asian Brown Cloud in particular. Don’t miss the two stunning photos on the entry page of his extensive website. That awful haze thirty miles from Everest has to be largely cooking and heating smoke. How much heavy industry is there 30 miles from Everest?

solar cooking, sharon cousinsSharon Cousins lives, loves, works, writes, reads, gardens, enjoys playing music and singing, and cooks with sunshine, high on a ridge ten miles north of Moscow, Idaho. Sharon’s fascination with solar cooking began late in ’06, while doing research for a novel series she is working on. You can read more about her solar cooking activities on her Solar Cooking Wiki page. You can learn more about Sharon’s writing and approach to writing on her unique writers’ website, Write ’em Cowgirls! and in her free writers’ e-newsletter, the Write ’em Cowgirls Express. Sharon is currently a member of the executive board of Solar Cookers International and also serves as a regional representative for the International Women’s Writing Guild.

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