Over the past 20 years, renewable energy usage has exploded around the world. In general, there is a widespread belief that renewable is better for the planet. That is often true. But not always.
Last week I interviewed James Rockall, who is the CEO of the World LPG Association based in Paris, France. Mr. Rockall highlighted a major global problem in which the fossil fuel solution is clearly better than the status quo.
Robert – About a decade ago I was researching a book chapter I was writing, and I learned something new. I learnt that most of the developing world uses wood as a primary source of energy, especially for cooking. And a lot of people die prematurely because of the particulates and so forth that causes. Can you address that?
James – Absolutely. First of all, we would never say that the majority of the developing world cook with wood. I don’t think it’s true anymore. The data that we have is that around three billion people, which is not quite half the planet, don’t have access to clean cooking. Now, in many cases, it is wood. It’s also charcoal, it’s coal. It’s dung cakes. It’s kerosene. You know, in some places I’ve seen people just burning rubbish because they need heat. So, it’s a lot of things. It’s not only wood, but wood is a big part of it and it’s killing people.
Every year, almost four million people die from household air pollution, which is mostly coming from cooking. And if you just put that into context, we had two million people die in the world last year from COVID-19. There are more people who die from household air pollution than the total who die from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. So, it’s a huge killer.
What’s important, I think, for people to recognize is it’s something which has a fairly straightforward solution. You don’t need to develop vaccines to stop people dying from air pollution. You need to give them clean cooking solutions. The world spends about twenty-five billion dollars a year trying to combat those diseases I mentioned – HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria — every year. Twenty-five billion dollars. If we spend 10 percent of that every year, two and a half billion dollars between now and 2040, we could provide universal access to clean cooking in the world. Now, I’m not saying it’s going to save four million lives a year, but it’s going to save a large proportion of them. So, this is very much a health intervention.
That’s probably the big story, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the whole issue of deforestation; people cutting down trees to fuel their fires. That’s an unsustainable process. And deforestation is making the whole climate change situation worse. It’s also leading to desertification in some parts of the world. These are things that we really would like to try and avoid.
We can address these problems — save lives and reduce deforestation — by providing access to clean cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
Robert – Can you explain for readers what LPG is?
James – LPG in the U.S. is essentially propane. In the rest of the world it’s propane and butane and any kind of mixture of the two. The thing about LPG, I think it’s important to note, is that it’s entirely a by-product. Nobody produces LPG because they want LPG. LPG is produced because they want something else, whether that’s natural gas, with over 60 percent of LPG is coming as a result of natural gas processing. And the others, most of it comes from crude refining and a small proportion now is coming from renewable. But that’s also coming from the whole bio-refining process. So, we’re a by-product and if it’s not used, it’s generally flared. And that’s a complete waste, it just adds carbon to the atmosphere for no benefit and you’re not getting the benefits of a clean energy. And that’s the kind of thing I’d like to talk about as we go through the interview. So, I think it’s really important to say upfront, it is a by-product, and we are utilizing it.
Robert – I know a lot of people would raise eyebrows at the notion that a fossil fuel could be better than a renewable fuel in some instances. How would you address such concerns?
James – What is it that makes a fuel clean? You can argue that carbon dioxide actually is not dirty. Carbon dioxide causes climate change, but in itself, it’s not dirty. What is not clean about LPG? There’s very little I would say that’s not clean about it. I have mentioned the number of people that die. They’re dying from exposure to particulates. They’re dying from exposure to nitrous oxides. They’re dying from these kinds of pollutants that you get from traditional fuels that you don’t get from LPG.
So, yes, it burns very cleanly. The other thing I think is important is it’s not just us saying this. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the report that they brought out a couple of years ago on this whole targeting 1.5 degrees C of climate warming, they highlighted the use of LPG as a cooking fuel to reduce particulate emissions. And it produces a negligible, in some cases even a negative increase in CO2. That might sound odd, but studies in India and in parts of Africa have shown that if you switch people from burning biomass to burning LPG, it reduces the amount of deforestation and you can get a net negative CO2 impact from that switch.
Last point, the International Energy Agency, which is part of the OECD, in their recent report World Energy Outlook on Poverty to Prosperity, they recommended the use of LPG as a household fuel to reduce household air pollution because it’s clean and because it saves lives. I think anybody that says LPG shouldn’t be used because it’s not clean hasn’t understood that LPG is better than the alternative. You know, you cannot expect people to continue to die, cooking on biomass, while they wait for for zero-carbon renewable solutions, which are not available at the moment. I think that’s a really important point to make. You know, we are going to be able to save lives and reduce CO2 by switching people to LPG for cooking.
Robert – Thanks, James. This concludes the first half of the interview. In Part 2, we will discuss the logistics of integrating LPG for cooking into the developing world, talk a bit about government programs that are pursuing this goal, and finally discuss some success stories around the world.