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The last of the fossil fuels ?

If the story of humankind starts with the invention of fire, then wood is the fuel that changed the world. But fast forward a million or so years to the Anthropocene age, and more than a third of the people on this planet are still so impoverished that they have no alternative. They must either search and gather wood for fuel if they live close to woodlands and forests or purchase the fuel as charcoal in the marketplace.

The pressure on the world’s forests is intense. When three billion people cook with wood and charcoal each day what is, in principle, a renewable source of energy is overwhelmed by the needs of millions of poor families that have no alternative but to gather wood wherever they can find it, or to cut down young trees if they can’t.

Analysts speak of an energy ladder.  Families are imagined as ascending from biomass fuels like firewood and charcoal, to kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG), and finally to natural gas and then to the most powerful and magical of all fuels: electricity.

Around 3 billion people in developing countries (mostly women and girls) cook with wood and charcoal. The exposure to smoke and household air pollution kills several million women and young children every year.

For most low-income families in the developing world this idea is a fairy tale. They may have electricity, but in such small quantities that it is used for the most important tasks: lighting, and charging the ubiquitous (and essential) mobile phone.  Why waste precious electricity on something as mundane as cooking?

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