One thing that has been considered a silver lining with the prevailing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, is the apparent regeneration of the environment being witnessed across the world!  The air in the cities is fresher as industrial activity; road and air travel decline - a net effect of reduced productivity.

Even then, insufficient data sets make it difficult for us to fully explore this environmental angle.

As outdoor pollution subsides, indoor pollution could rise unprecedentedly. According to the Clean Cooking Alliance, about 3 billion people globally rely on inefficient fuels such as firewood, charcoal, and paraffin for cooking. Most of these people are economically disempowered and cannot afford safe fuels. Government measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 such as the closure of schools have forced children to stay indoors. Other stricter measures such as lockdown and cessation of movement orders have also constrained populations to their houses. With more people at home, naturally, more cooking and feeding are expected to take place, thus increased the use of inefficient fuels.


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Inadvertently residents of lowly neighborhoods are being exposed to a subtle, yet lethal death-trap. The World Health Organization places the annual death toll from exposure to household pollution at a colossal 4,3 million people. The poor will be at a heightened risk of succumbing to illnesses related to the indoor use of inefficient fuels.

COVID-19 has catalyzed joblessness, farther entrenching poverty. The World Bank estimates that 40-60 million people worldwide will be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. The risk is that the use of inefficient fuel sources could rise due to its direct correlation with the poverty index. This threat is much higher in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of southeast Asia, and Latin America. Arguably, decreased purchasing power could mean less cooking thus minimal use of inefficient fuels per household. However, the long-term health risks associated with irregular use of inefficient fuels shouldn’t be ignored.

Ceteris paribus, the world’s poor will always use the energy source they deem cheapest. The decline in global oil prices will thus propel the use of kerosene. In Kenya for instance, data from EPRA  shows that between March and April 2020, kerosene in Nairobi was retailing at slightly under $1 a liter - KSh 99,46 to be specific.

In the April to May period, this has gone down to KES 77.28: a 22.30% decline, enough to stimulate demand. This downward trend in pricing is bound to continue given that price response in developing markets tends to trail global oil price movements. The imminent danger becomes that consumers have a little option from a pricing perspective in choosing between kerosene powered home- light and a solar lantern albeit in the short run, disregarding the associated kerosene lighting health costs from smoke and poor visibility.

Some practical things we can do to reduce indoor air pollution

Free care packages

Most care packages donated in informal settlements have been focused on the distribution of masks, water, food, cooking oil, and other essentials. It is time we considered how to factor in the issue of efficient fuels. Given that outside a cure for COVID-19, the human immune system is currently the last line of defense, cooking with charcoal and the likes jeopardize survival as it overburdens the immune system with toxins. PPP models should be utilized here.

There is room to bring in solutions such as KOKO Networks, a low-cost biofuel provider into the COVID-19 fight. Another partner could be Burn of the famed ‘Jikokoa’ cook-stove brand. However, government policy support is crucial through subsidies, tax incentives, or even mass public health awareness.

Subsidies

The need for subsidies for clean cooking solutions is more important now than ever. To put this into context, from a recent REN21 report, a total of USD 1.9 trillion in bank financing went into fossil fuels. All of this happened between the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and 2018. In 2017, a total of USD 300 billion was channeled through subsidies for fuel consumption, an 11% increase from the previous year, and twice the approximate amount needed for renewable power generation. So in following the money trail.

It’s immediately easy to see how nothing much has changed in the larger scheme of things, especially in the clean cooking arena. Clean cooking remains largely underfunded both commercially and from a subsidy perspective. Clean cooking voices are also largely under-represented in the policy table owing to the fact that they cannot much the lobbying war chest by established fossil players. COVID-19 is a sure wake-up call to right these wrongs.

Conclusion

In summary, the war against COVID-19 and its effects may never be won unless clean energy is part of the equation.

Twelve of the seventeen SDG goals (including SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing) are highly dependent on clean energy access (i.e. SDG 7) for them to be achieved. This involves access to clean cooking solutions as well. It is time to rise up to the challenge!

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