Because they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuels have been largely dismissed as a viable alternative for the one-third of the world's population who now use coal and local biomass - including wood, crop residues and dung - for cooking and heating, said Kirk R. Smith, professor and chair of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. Efforts have been focused on equipping the rural poor with renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
But in an editorial appearing this week in the journal Science, Smith argues that switching all 2 billion of the world's poor to liquefied petroleum gas for household use would add a scant 2 percent to the global greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels. At the same time, using gas fuel would decrease the environmental impact on local biomass resources.
The environmental impact of this dependence on local biomass for household fuel has already been documented in some regions of the world. According to the 2001 Annual Report by The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental organization, the use of wood to fuel cook stoves and to heat homes in China's Yunnan Province is leading to deforestation and contributing to soil erosion.
"There are also significant health reasons for helping these poor households to stop relying upon wood to cook in simple stoves," said Smith. "Liquefied petroleum gas burns much cleaner than the biomass fuels the rural poor are using now. We know that the indoor smoke the people in these households are being exposed to every day, year after year, is adversely affecting their health."