Indonesia shows clean cooking saves lives

Asia World

Author: Imelda, Carlos III University of Madrid

From 2010 to 2018, Indonesia doubled the proportion of its population with access to clean cooking — from 40 to 80 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency’s Energy Progress Report. This is an impressive achievement compared to India, which moved from 30 to 50 per cent, and to Sub-Saharan Africa, which is still below 20 per cent.

An Indonesian villager cooks in her kitchen using firewood on the outskirts of Bojonegoro town, East Java (Photo: Reuters/Sigit Pamungkas).

An Indonesian villager cooks in her kitchen using firewood on the outskirts of Bojonegoro town, East Java (Photo: Reuters/Sigit Pamungkas).

One of the biggest sources of indoor pollution in developing countries is cooking with unclean fuels such as firewood and kerosene. Burning these fuels produces dangerous pollutants, reaching up to 100 times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended safe levels. According to WHO estimates, indoor air pollution is associated with four million deaths annually, making indoor pollution one of the leading causes of and death in the developing world.

Isolating the health impact of clean cooking from other fruits of economic development is challenging — so the true benefit of access to clean cooking is still unknown. As it has not yet been fully quantified, it is often ignored in cost–benefit calculations for policy analysis.

In 2007, the Indonesian government started a cooking fuel conversion program that replaced kerosene with liquid petroleum gas (LPG) at a national scale. Due to its direct and large-scale influence on clean cooking, the conversion program provided an opportunity to assess clean cooking’s benefits.

Fine particulates from burning LPG are about 46–76 per cent lower than particulates from burning kerosene. Replacing kerosene with LPG can lower indoor fine particulates to a concentration which is 2 to 6 times the safe levels recommended by the WHO.

Before the program, infant mortality rates and other household characteristics in districts that received the program in earlier years — such as Balikpapan and Batam — were trending similarly to districts — such as Padang and Nunukan — that received the program in later years. The primary difference between the two groups was the households’ fuel choice — households that received the program earlier were more likely to use LPG than kerosene.

The program led to a sizeable decrease in infant mortality rates, since newborns are the most vulnerable to pollution. The switch to a cleaner fuel resulted in 137–293 fewer infant deaths among the 19,571 live births observed in the data.

Dirty cooking fuel is not the only source of indoor pollution. Tobacco smoke and other sources of incomplete combustion (such as incense and candles) are similarly polluting. Indoor air pollution can have more severe health effects than outdoor air pollution — most people spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors and closer to indoor sources of air pollution. As there are clear health benefits to maintaining indoor air quality, the public should be informed of its importance.

Encouraging people to switch to new technology is often a challenge. But combining a subsidy for ‘clean fuel’ with restrictions on ‘dirty fuel’ can enable a high adoption rate of new and cleaner technology. This combination also prevents households from reverting to using dirty fuel.

As a result of these policies, Indonesia went from being one of the countries with the lowest share of the population with clean cooking to having one of the highest shares in the developing world in less than ten years.

The main policy implication is that a combination of policy instruments may lead to a high adoption rate with attendant improvements in health. A single policy instrument alone may not be sufficient to address the lack of access to clean cooking among the 2.6 billion people who lack it. Merely providing access to clean fuel may not be enough because people may still have a low willingness to pay for clean energy and many may not know how to use clean cooking technology.

Indonesia’s program provides an important lesson for energy transition policies in other developing countries. Yet despite the success of the transition, challenges remain for future energy security in clean cooking in Indonesia.

The share of imported LPG has grown from 54 to 75 per cent in the last eight years and it is likely to increase further in the future. A shock in LPG prices can hurt the economy, similar to the oil price shock in 2005–2006.

There are also infrastructure and resource constraints in distributing LPG around Indonesia. Some regions received the program earlier than others and some are even still waiting to receive LPG, particularly the in eastern part of Indonesia. Despite these challenges, the government continues to make improvements — in mid-2020 it implemented a targeted distribution system to ensure that the LPG subsidy will only benefit those who are eligible.

The remarkable progress in clean cooking can be largely attributed to the leadership of former vice president Jusuf Kalla (2004–2009). He set the ambitious goal of converting the cooking fuel used in over 50 million households from kerosene to LPG in five years. The goal of building and connecting households to the national gas network will need further leadership to achieve 5 million households connected by 2025.

Imelda is a postdoctoral researcher in the Economics Department at Carlos III University of Madrid.

This article is drawn from the author’s recent publication Cooking that kills: Cleaner energy access, indoor air pollution, and health in the Journal of Development Economics.