Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announced yesterday nearly $9 million in university research grants to study cleaner cookstoves and fuels that “improve air quality, protect public health, and slow climate change” in countries such as Kenya, Mongolia, India, and Nepal. If only that much money could have been spent on a proven health and environmental solution—access to affordable electricity.
The World Health Organization estimates that 3 billion people, or almost half the world, use open fires or stoves to warm their homes and cook. Some 4 million people allegedly die prematurely from increased exposure to soot and other related pollution every year (not to mention, though, the millions more who would die without such means to cook their food).
Why so much money to research campfires? In a 2010 document explaining the EPA’s five-year focus on cookstoves, the EPA writes: “As greenhouse gas emissions have increased, the smoke from kitchens in the developing world has escalated from a local to a worldwide threat. The average cooking fire produces about as much carbon dioxide as a car, and produces more soot, also known as black carbon. Reducing these emissions may be among the fastest, cheapest ways to fight global climate change.” Echoing this perspective, McCarthy remarked at the announcement of the six grant winners that “if you think that pollution in these homes stops there, you’re wrong.”
The six projects awarded grants by the EPA won’t be complete until 2016. In the meantime, what people in Kenya, Mongolia, India, Nepal, and elsewhere really need is access to affordable electricity. It’s the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to operate a commercial fishing trawler.
Affordable and reliable energy heats the homes and meals, runs the schools and hospitals, and creates the products and opportunities that help lift people out of poverty. A natural consequence of economic opportunity and wealth is a cleaner environment. Yet too many government policies, at home and abroad, make these opportunities further out of reach under the misguided premise of impacting global warming and in the process thwart the very means by which to improve environmental health as well.
The poorest are most vulnerable to higher energy prices, as a larger part of their budget must be spent on energy expenses. In the U.S., the bottom half of Americans spend a fifth of their income on energy-related expenses. Meanwhile, the top half dedicates less than 10 percent of their budgets to energy costs. And yet the EPA is poised to release a second set of carbon regulations that will severely threaten the availability of affordable electricity. The picture is much grimmer outside the industrialized world where electricity is still a luxury.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal