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12 December 2019

Traditional stove use in rural China persists despite health warnings

Research published in Nature Sustainability finds that many Chinese homes continue to use traditional coal and wood-burning stoves despite proof that they are linked to premature deaths and climate change.


The team of researchers led by King’s and McGill University suggest that without a better understanding of the reasons behind people’s reluctance to give up traditional stoves, it will be difficult for policies in China and elsewhere in the world to succeed in encouraging a shift towards clean energy.

Air pollution from traditional stoves contributed to approximately 2.8 million premature deaths globally in 2017 and is a major contributor to regional climate change. Efforts made worldwide by governments, NGOs, and researchers to incentivise households to switch entirely to clean fuel stoves and give up their traditional stoves – even in highly controlled randomised trials – have largely failed.

In this study, the team gathered data from over 700 homes in three provinces in China (Beijing, Shanxi and Guangxi). They asked participants to identify which type of stove they have ever owned, their frequency and timing of use, and what fuel types they used with the household stoves.

They found that although many of the households had started using clean energy for cooking (95%) and heating (73%) only 35% had completely suspended the use of traditional stoves for cooking and 17% for heating. 

Those who stopped using traditional stoves tended to be younger, more educated and had poorer health prior to switching to cleaner fuel use. Those who adopted clean technology tended either to be younger or retired, lived in smaller households, and had a higher income. 

Although this focused on China, home to over 500 million solid fuel stove users, researchers believe these findings can be extended to other countries with different levels of economic development.

Everyone in the UK now seems to be aware of ambient pollution in cities and it’s negative effects on health. Many, however, may be surprised that in some countries indoor pollution from cooking stoves is having an even larger impact of people’s health. Unfortunately, many habits are hard to change such as the use of wood or coal for cooking and in this study, we evaluated how changing to cleaner fuels was linked to better education and those suffering poorer health prior to changing to clean cooking methods. The lessons learnt in rural China will now be extended to other regions and hopefully will be applicable to other countries still dominated by traditional cooking methods.

Professor Frank Kelly, Head of Department of Analytical, Environmental and Forensic Sciences

The researchers now plan to develop a framework on the household and community factors that can facilitate suspension of solid fuel stoves. For this work, they obtained several nationally representative datasets on energy use from India, Cambodia, and a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to empirically assess this same question in other settings.

Our findings are likely most relevant for developing and transitioning regions, so we also need to make sure the burdens of any publicly beneficial policy do not fall disproportionately on poorer populations.

Professor Brian Robinson, visiting Professor in Faculty of Social Sciences & Public Policy.

In this story

Frank  Kelly

Visiting Professor