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Replacing smoky indoor cooking fires in India with environmentally friendly cookstoves would have the same effect on health as almost halving the country's cancer burden, a study says.

The research — the first to quantify how many lives could be saved by using improved cookstoves — is one of a series on the public health benefits of reducing carbon emissions in selected scenarios, including food, agriculture and household energy, published in The Lancet last week (25 November).

Introducing 150 million low-emission household cookstoves over the next decade would not only reduce greenhouse gases but prevent the deaths of 240,000 children under five from acute lower respiratory infection and 1.8 million deaths from lung and heart disease by 2020, the study said.

The researchers also looked at the benefits of improving energy efficiency in UK households, such as changes to building materials, ventilation and fuel use. These changes would save 0.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per million people per year, compared with 0.1–0.2 megatonnes in India, but save just 850 disability-adjusted life years, compared with 12,500 in India.

The cost of implementing such a cookstove programme would be "less than US$50 every 5 years" per household, the study said, adding that China has introduced 180 million stoves in 12 years.

The idea behind the Lancet series is to combat resistance to ambitious emissions targets by showing that switching to low-carbon economies can save lives and reduce medical costs.

Convincing people that climate change will affect their own or their family's health could dramatically improve support for climate mitigation and adaptation plans, said Maria Neira, director of public health and environment at the WHO.

"The public is not aware there is a linkage between health and climate change," she said. "For [a grandmother], climate change is about the environment and polar bears but not about the asthma case her grandson has. The day we make that connection, everything will move on an incredible scale."

The report's findings will be presented at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in December, although the WHO admits that few health ministers will attend.

A study released this month by India's Centre for Development Finance states that despite thirty years of work and their well-known health and environmental benefits, cookstoves are still not widely used.

"People are willing to shift from using traditional cookstoves to using improved cookstoves only if they perceive a real utility value," it said.

Link to full paper in The Lancet*

Link to Centre for Development Finance study

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