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Cooking stoves aren't the leading cause of climate change -- scientists agree that dubious distinction likely goes to carbon dioxide from fossil fuels (mostly used by rich countries). But cooking stoves used by many poor families contribute to climate change, too, by giving off a noxious and dangerous soot known as black carbon. It's created from burning wood crops and other organic matter.
"It's a powerful absorber of sunlight," Rhitu Chatterjee reports for PRI's The World, "several hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide."
In India, for example, there are an estimated 150 million households, and virtually all of them have cook-stoves. Analysis of air filters from India by Stockholm University geochemist Orjan Gustafson found that about two-thirds of the soot came from biomass and biofuel combustion. Gustafson believes the vast majority of that comes from cooking.
Replacing traditional cooking stoves with more efficient ones could have a dramatic effect on black carbon levels, according to atmospheric scientist V Ramanathan of the University of California San Diego. It won't stop climate change fully, since the biggest source of climate change still comes from carbon dioxide emissions. But it could take effect quickly.
Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years, so cuts in emissions now may not have an effect until the distant future. On the other hand, "if you reduce the black carbon today, they'll be gone few weeks from now," according to Ramanathan. "So the effect will be immediate."
But behavioral change is difficult, for both carbon dioxide and black carbon. And replacing traditional cooking stoves with more efficient ones is easer said than done. "You see cooking is a very cultural trait," Ibrahim Rehman, a scientist at New Delhi's Energy and Resources Institute, told The World. Rehman has tried to get women to use solar cookers for health reasons, but found people resistant to change. He said:
Solar cookers in the rural areas is not a very practical idea at the moment because they are really not able to take care of different customs, practices, food habits of local communities.
Difficulties considered, it's still an important project to fight climate change, according to Ramanathan. "You know we have lost some time in terms of taking remedial actions to slow down climate change," he told The World. "And while we are figuring out how to reduce CO2, reducing black carbon would let us gain some time back."
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