Clean cookstoves may be competitive with GiveWell-recommended charities

This shal­low re­view was writ­ten by SoGive. SoGive is an or­gani­sa­tion which pro­vides ser­vices to donors to help them to achieve high im­pact dona­tions.

This is a very quick, rough model of the cost-effec­tive­ness of pro­mot­ing clean cook­stoves in the de­vel­op­ing world. It sug­gests that:

- If a clean cook­stove in­ter­ven­tion is suc­cess­ful, it may have roughly the same bal­l­park of cost-effec­tive­ness as a GiveWell-recom­mended charity

- C.90% of the im­pact comes from di­rectly sav­ing lives, in a model which re­flected sav­ing lives and cli­mate change impact

This is very much not in­tended to be a fi­nal, pol­ished anal­y­sis of the topic. In par­tic­u­lar, in or­der to make this a quick, bite-sized piece of anal­y­sis, a num­ber of im­por­tant as­sump­tions were made, no­tably:

  • We did not care­fully re­view how easy/​tractable it is to get cook­stoves into homes and *ac­tu­ally main­tained and used*. We are aware that J-PAL has re­viewed this ques­tion some time ago and con­cluded that this is difficult. More re­cently IDin­sight con­sid­ered this topic and found that it can be made to work. The IDin­sight anal­y­sis only came to our at­ten­tion af­ter this short piece was already mostly drafted, and we may up­date our views af­ter we have con­sid­ered the IDin­sight piece more care­fully.

  • The anal­y­sis as­sumes that clean cook­stoves re­ally are clean (i.e. that all the pre­ma­ture deaths from in­door air pol­lu­tion would go away if clean cook­stoves were uni­ver­sally adopted). (Note: af­ter cre­at­ing this model, we ob­served that this ProPublica ar­ti­cle seems to sug­gest that this as­sump­tion is un­likely to be true. As this was a quick, shal­low re­view, we have not yet worked out how much the model should be ad­justed for this, if at all)

  • A num­ber of fac­tors were omit­ted from the model which are likely to un­der­state the true im­pact, no­tably: cost sav­ings to fam­ily, differ­ing amounts of time spent on cook­ing (in­clud­ing fuel col­lec­tion time), mor­bidity im­pact of re­plac­ing un­clean cookstoves

  • We also omit­ted the im­pact on malaria, which is ap­pears to be a small (or pos­si­bly close to zero) effect, but if any­thing goes the other way (i.e. is a dis­ad­van­tage of re­plac­ing bio­mass cook­stoves with clean cook­stoves)

  • Lives saved equiv­a­lents for cli­mate change were calcu­lated us­ing the $417 per tonne of CO2eq so­cial cost of car­bon from a Na­ture Cli­mate Change pa­per, and then con­verted into lives saved equiv­a­lents us­ing the moral weights in the GiveWell cost-effec­tive­ness anal­y­sis.

  • Another fac­tor not con­sid­ered in this anal­y­sis is whether dona­tions are the right way to fund the in­ter­ven­tion. In gen­eral, where an in­ter­ven­tion can be effec­tively be funded by in­vest­ment, a donor should con­sider whether that is a bet­ter way to fund the or­gani­sa­tion. It seems likely that this would be a rele­vant con­sid­er­a­tion here too, and may ma­te­ri­ally ar­gue against donat­ing to sup­port this area of work.

The model

A rough cost-effec­tive­ness model for re­plac­ing ba­sic bio­mass cook­stoves with im­proved cook­stoves can be found in this spread­sheet, and is also set out at a high level in Ap­pendix 2. https://​​​​spread­sheets/​​d/​​1xqFz5Lhuc5x__SPr­buHgW­tou289lF3oZrin­naoV7whI/​​edit#gid=0

Find­ings of the model

If we sim­ply look at the lives saved benefit only, we get a cost per life saved equal to

· Cost of sub­si­dis­ing cook­stoves /​ num­ber of lives saved = $45bn/​3.8m = $11,800 (3sf)

This $11,800 figure gives no credit to the CO2/​cli­mate benefits.

· Cost per life saved equiv­a­lent fac­tor­ing in cli­mate change effects = $10,700 (3sf)

The cli­mate im­pact is mod­el­led us­ing the so­cial cost of car­bon from a re­cent pa­per in Na­ture Cli­mate Change which gave a so­cial cost of car­bon of $417 per tonne. Hav­ing con­verted the tonnes of CO2 to $, this is then con­verted to lives saved us­ing the same moral weights as used in the GiveWell CEA. This re­sults in cli­mate change mak­ing a rel­a­tively small differ­ence com­pared to the di­rect air pol­lu­tion effect on mor­tal­ity. Note that the so­cial cost of car­bon is just based on the eco­nomic effects of cli­mate change – other effects (e.g. ele­vated risk of con­flict) are not mod­el­led, so ar­guably the cli­mate el­e­ment of this model un­der­states the true im­pact.

A typ­i­cal cost per life saved equiv­a­lent for a GiveWell-recom­mended char­ity is roughly $2,000 (see this post for more http://​​think­ingaboutchar­​​2019/​​12/​​how-cost-effec­tive-is-cost-effec­tive.html) For GiveDirectly, the cost per life saved equiv­a­lent is closer to $20,000.

So cook­stoves are a bit be­hind the most cost-effec­tive char­i­ties, but not in to­tally the wrong bal­l­park.

How­ever it’s un­clear whether a ful­ler anal­y­sis tak­ing into ac­count the fac­tors listed at the be­gin­ning of this piece would still come to the same con­clu­sion.

Ap­pendix 1: Some rough notes from our back­ground read­ing on the topic

· This 2013 ar­ti­cle (Martin, Glass et al 2013) is a pretty de­cent overview (al­though no checks done on how much of it is out of date now) https://​​​​pmc/​​ar­ti­cles/​​PMC3672215/​​

· This WHO fact sheet has some handy data: https://​​​​en/​​news-room/​​fact-sheets/​​de­tail/​​house­hold-air-pol­lu­tion-and-health

· J-PAL has some use­ful pa­pers.

o This pa­per finds that use de­clines over time https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​eval­u­a­tion/​​cook­ing-stoves-in­door-air-pol­lu­tion-and-res­pi­ra­tory-health-india

o This pa­per ex­plored the way that gen­der dy­nam­ics in­fluenced de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the house­hold https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​eval­u­a­tion/​​de­mand-non­tra­di­tional-cook­stoves-bangladesh

o This is also say­ing that use de­clines over time https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​sites/​​de­fault/​​files/​​pub­li­ca­tions/​​52%20Up%20in%20Smoke%20AEJ2016.pdf

o This is a nice short fact­sheet: https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​sites/​​de­fault/​​files/​​pub­li­ca­tions/​​2012.08.29-Cook­stoves.pdf

· The World Bank has some use­ful papers

o http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​732691468177236006/​​pdf/​​632170WP0House00Box0361508B0PUBLIC0.pdf

o http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​164241468178757464/​​pdf/​​98664-REVISED-WP-P146621-PUBLIC-Box393185B.pdf

· This ar­ti­cle seems to cover how the cleaner cook­stoves com­pare with the old ones (I haven’t looked at this ar­ti­cle prop­erly yet) https://​​​​1327615/​​why-does-the-global-al­li­ance-for-clean-cook­stoves-pro­mote-fos­sil-fuels/​​

· It refers to this (longer) piece: https://​​www.prop­ub­​​ar­ti­cle/​​cook­stoves-push-to-pro­tect-the-planet-falls-short

Some notes from an ar­ti­cle by the Wash­ing­ton Post:


· About 3 billion of the world’s peo­ple burn wood, char­coal or dung in smoky open fires to cook their food and heat their homes.

· Each year, close to 4 mil­lion peo­ple die pre­ma­turely from ill­ness at­tributable to house­hold air pol­lu­tion from in­effi­cient cook­ing prac­tices us­ing pol­lut­ing stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.

· Source: WHO https://​​​​en/​​news-room/​​fact-sheets/​​de­tail/​​house­hold-air-pol­lu­tion-and-health

· This JPAL study (Bailis, Dwivedi et al https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​eval­u­a­tion/​​de­mand-non­tra­di­tional-cook­stoves-bangladesh) found that women have stronger prefer­ences for im­proved stoves than their hus­bands, but lack the au­thor­ity to make pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions. Their find­ings also sug­gest that mar­ket­ing cam­paigns can prompt ini­tial adop­tion of un­fa­mil­iar tech­nolo­gies like im­proved stoves, but are less effec­tive in the long run as com­mon ex­pe­rience with tech­nolo­gies grows. In­ter­est­ingly the study noted that when women were ini­tially asked about clean cook­stoves on their own they were more pos­i­tive about them than their hus­bands, but in the few months be­tween or­der and de­liv­ery, their opinions on the topic had come more in line with that of their hus­bands.

· This JPAL study (Hanna et al 2016 https://​​www.poverty­ac­tion­​​sites/​​de­fault/​​files/​​pub­li­ca­tions/​​52%20Up%20in%20Smoke%20AEJ2016.pdf) found that smoke in­hala­tion ini­tially falls when peo­ple get an im­proved cook­stove, but that the effect dis­ap­pears by year 2.

· This Nov 2014 World Bank study on Clean and Im­proved cook­ing in Sub-Sa­haran Africa (http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​164241468178757464/​​pdf/​​98664-REVISED-WP-P146621-PUBLIC-Box393185B.pdf) states that “So far, three decades of efforts to pro­mote both mod­ern fuels and im­proved bio­mass stoves have seen only spo­radic suc­cess at scale in the re­gion and globally”. How­ever it also strikes an op­ti­mistic note, sug­gest­ing that with the right con­di­tions, the com­ing years could serve as a turn­ing point for the sec­tor.

· A no­table ex­cep­tion to the claims that it’s hard to get cook­stoves to be effec­tive was a gov­ern­ment pro­gramme in China that got more than 100 mil­lion cook­stoves into peo­ple’s homes (source: World Bank study dated 2011 http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​732691468177236006/​​pdf/​​632170WP0House00Box0361508B0PUBLIC0.pdf) China’s gov­ern­ment is bet­ter able to dic­tate this sort of thing to its peo­ple than more demo­cratic coun­tries.

· Jour­nal­ist Meera Subra­ma­nian vis­ited a village in north­ern In­dia that had been de­clared “smoke-free” af­ter a non-profit dis­tributed bio­mass cook­stoves there. She found that women had stopped us­ing the stoves be­cause they didn’t like the de­sign, or be­cause the stoves broke, burned more wood (not less, as in­tended) or didn’t get foods hot enough. “I couldn’t find a sin­gle stove op­er­at­ing in a con­di­tion re­sem­bling what its de­sign­ers in­tended,” she writes in her book “A river runs again”. The Ap­pro­pri­ate Ru­ral Tech­nol­ogy In­sti­tute, which gave away the stoves, took a sur­vey two years later and found that only 20% were still in use. “Why are they cheat­ing us by giv­ing us things which break so early?” one woman com­plained to the agency.

· Afford­abil­ity re­mains a fun­da­men­tal challenge. Dirtier bio­mass cook­stoves sell for $25 or less, but more com­plex stoves which run on elec­tric­ity or use liquid fuels typ­i­cally cost more and re­quire ac­cess to a steady and re­li­able source of fuel.

Ap­pendix 2: Sum­mary of the model


· “In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, about 730 mil­lion tons of bio­mass are burned each year, amount­ing to more than 1 billion tons of car­bon diox­ide (CO2) emit­ted into the at­mo­sphere.” (Source: World Bank 2011 http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​732691468177236006/​​pdf/​​632170WP0House00Box0361508B0PUBLIC0.pdf)

· Clean cook­stoves can re­duce fuel use by 30-60% (source: clean cook­ing al­li­ance https://​​www.clean­cook­ingal­li­​​im­pact-ar­eas/​​en­vi­ron­ment/​​in­dex.html)

· WHO es­ti­mate of pre­ma­ture deaths from cook­ing over open fires in­creased from 1.9 mil­lion to 4.3 mil­lion (source: Martin, Glass, et al 2013 https://​​​​pmc/​​ar­ti­cles/​​PMC3672215/​​) How­ever the 4.3 mil­lion is re­ported as 3.8 mil­lion in this WHO fact­sheet (https://​​​​en/​​news-room/​​fact-sheets/​​de­tail/​​house­hold-air-pol­lu­tion-and-health) so I will use 3.8 mil­lion.

· Not mod­el­led: cost sav­ings to fam­ily, differ­ing amounts of time spent on cook­ing (in­clud­ing fuel col­lec­tion time), mor­bidity im­pact of re­plac­ing un­clean cook­stoves, im­pact on malaria.

All of this doesn’t take into ac­count the pos­si­bil­ity that in­ter­ven­tions to re­duce ex­po­sure to in­door air pol­lu­tion may in­crease ex­po­sure to mosquitoes. See Biran, Smith et al 2007 https://​​​​pubmed/​​17888474/​​ for more on this, but Biran, Smith et al sug­gested that this prob­a­bly wasn’t a worry, but it also wasn’t con­clu­sive.


The cost side of the cost-benefit anal­y­sis is mod­el­led by the cost of sub­si­dis­ing the pur­chase of an im­proved cook­stove.

a) The cost of a new stove is more than $50 (us­ing the ex­am­ple of Inyeny­eri in Rwanda, as de­scribed in this Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle https://​​www.wash­ing­ton­​​opinions/​​these-cheap-clean-stoves-were-sup­posed-to-save-mil­lions-of-lives-what-hap­pened/​​2015/​​10/​​29/​​c0b98f38-77fa-11e5-a958-d889faf561dc_story.html) and most cus­tomers will need two or three, so let’s say the cost is $150.

b) The ini­tial will­ing­ness to pay for a qual­ity Im­proved Cook Stove is of­ten 20% − 50% of stove value, but can be in­creased with mar­ket­ing and con­sumer ed­u­ca­tion (Soruce: World Bank pa­per http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​164241468178757464/​​pdf/​​98664-REVISED-WP-P146621-PUBLIC-Box393185B.pdf)

c) To­tal num­ber of peo­ple us­ing solid (bio­mass) fuel is 3 billion (source: this World Bank pa­per http://​​doc­u­ments.wor­ld­​​cu­rated/​​en/​​732691468177236006/​​pdf/​​632170WP0House00Box0361508B0PUBLIC0.pdf or this WHO fact­sheet https://​​​​en/​​news-room/​​fact-sheets/​​de­tail/​​house­hold-air-pol­lu­tion-and-health)

d) Let’s as­sume that the num­ber of peo­ple fed per stove is 5 (source: guess)

e) So the to­tal num­ber of stoves to be re­placed is 600 mil­lion (= (c) /​ (d))

f) As­sum­ing that the will­ing­ness to pay is 50% (see (b)) and the cost is $150 (see (a)), this means that the cost is 50% × $150 × 600 mil­lion stoves = $45 billion. This as­sumes that the cost to im­ple­ment the change is the cost of sub­si­dis­ing the re­main­ing 50%.