Greenhouse Gas and Particulate Emissions and Impacts from Cooking Technologies in Africa

Document Type



East African Institute


In much of Africa, the largest fraction of energy consumption occurs within the residential sector and is derived primarily from woodfuels burned in simple stoves with poor combustion characteristics. Many of the products of incomplete combustion (PICs) are damaging to human health, particularly when they are concentrated in poorly ventilated indoor environments. Incomplete combustion also has potentially harmful impacts on the climate. Prevalent PICs include methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) that is among the pollutants subject to controls under the Kyoto Protocol as well as carbon monoxide (CO), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) and particulate matter (PM), which can all have an effect on climate, but are not subject to controls under Kyoto. In addition, when woodfuels are used at a rate that reduces standing stocks of trees over the medium or long term, the CO2 released by combustion also has an impact. The choice of stove and fuel technology can have a significant impact on the emission of GHGs as well as on human exposure to health damaging pollutants. In this paper we analyze the emissions of different household energy technologies on a life-cycle basis. We use emission factors to estimate the emissions associated with production, distribution and end-use of common household fuels and assess the likely impacts of these emissions on public health and the global environment. We focus largely on charcoal, a popular fuel in many sub-Saharan African countries. Charcoal is produced by heating wood in the absence of sufficient air for complete combustion to occur. This process removes moisture and most of the volatile compounds. The compounds driven off in the process consist of condensable tars as well as many gaseous hydrocarbons, including ~40 g CH4 per kg of charcoal produced. Combining upstream and end-use emissions, every meal cooked with charcoal has 2-10 times the global warming effect of cooking the same meal with firewood and 5-12 times the effect of cooking the same meal with LPG or kerosene. When charcoal is produced in large quantities, as it is in Africa, the net warming effect can exceed the impact from the "modern energy sector" (transportation and industry) by 50-100 percent, even if charcoal is produced on a sustainable cycle so that all of the wood harvested for charcoal production is allowed to regenerate. However, while charcoal may be worse than firewood with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, it is an improvement with respect to exposure to health damaging pollutants, particularly particulate matter (PM). Levels of PM in households using charcoal are over 90 percent lower than households using open wood fires (316 -(159) mg/m3 for households using charcoal in a common improved stove compared to 3764 (360) mg/m3) for households using wood in open fires: mean (standard error)). These differences in exposure are consistent with 30 and 50 percent reductions in the incidence of acute respiratory infection (ARI) in adults and children under 5 respectively. Reconciling the costs and benefits of different household energy technologies creates a difficult policy challenge, particularly with the severe budgetary and resource constraints that household consumers and government agencies face in sub-Saharan Africa.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.