Cooking with clean fuel to save lives

© | Shutterstock

By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

When it comes to home cooking in rural India, health, behavior, and technology are essential ingredients.

Consider the government’s three-year campaign to reduce the damaging impacts of solid fuels traditionally used in rural households below the poverty line.

Initiated by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, a program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (Ujjwala) aims to safeguard the health of women and children by providing them access to a clean cooking fuel, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), so that they don’t have to compromise their health in smoky kitchens or wander in unsafe areas collecting firewood.

According to the World Health Organization, smoke inhaled by women and children from unclean fuel is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes in an hour.

Nevertheless, an estimated 700 million people in India still rely on solid fuels and traditional cooking stoves in their homes. A subsidy of Rs. 1600 (US $23.47) and an interest free loan attempts to offset the discouraging cost of the upfront security deposit, the stove, and the first bottle of LPG, but this measure hasn’t been able to change habits on its own.

Why? Although the government has made an overwhelming effort to increase access, interconnected factors like cultural norms, economic trade-offs, and convenience require an in-depth analysis of human behavior and decision-making.

Abhishek Kar, 2018 YSSP participant ©IIASA

That’s why Abhishek Kar, a researcher in the IIASA Energy Program and a participant in the 2018 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), has designed a study to explore how rural households make choices about access and usage. Borrowing from behavior change and technology adoption theories, he wants to know whether low-cost access is enough incentive for Ujjwala beneficiaries to match the general rural consumption trends, and more importantly, how to translate public perception into a behavior change.

“I think it’s really important to look into the behavioral aspect,” said Kar in an interview. “If you ask someone if they think clean cooking is wise they may say yes, but if you say do you think it is appropriate for you? The moment it becomes personalized the answers can vary.”

Kar knows that although more than 41 million LPG connections have been installed, installment of the connection does not necessarily equate to use. By gathering data on LPG refill purchases and trends, along with surveys that identify biases in the public’s perception, he wants to know how to convince rural BPL households to maintain the habit of using LPG regularly, even under adverse conditions like price hikes. If LPG is used only sporadically, LPG ownership won’t significantly reduce risk for some household air pollution (HAP)-linked deadly diseases, like lower respiratory infections and stroke.

Unfortunately, even the substantial efforts the government has made to improve LPG supply has not changed the public’s perception of its accessibility in the long term, nor its consumption patterns in the first two years. At least four LPG refills per year would be needed for a family of five to use LPG as a primary cooking fuel, which is not currently happening for the majority of Ujjwala customers.

Because the majority of Ujjwala beneficiaries have cost-free access to solid fuels from forest and agricultural fields, there is less incentive for these families to use LPG regularly instead of sporadically. Priority households for Ujjwala, especially those with no working age adults, are often severely economically disadvantaged and can’t afford to buy LPG at regular intervals.

Furthermore, unlike LPG, a traditional mud stove is more versatile and can serve dual purposes of space heating and cooking during winter months. Many prospective customers are also hesitant about the inferior taste of food cooked in LPG, the utility of the mud stove’s smoke as insect repellent, and the trade-off of expenses on tobacco and alcohol with LPG refills.

As per past studies, even the richest 10% of India’s rural households (most with access to LPG) continue to depend on solid fuels to meet ~50% of their cooking energy demand. This suggests that wealth is not the only stumbling block in the transition process.

“Whatever factors matter in the outside world, my working hypothesis is that every decision is finally mediated through a person’s attitude, knowledge, and perceptions of control,” said Kar. According to Kar, interventions can be specifically targeted to address factors that are perceived negatively either by informing people or doing something to improve that factor. Nevertheless, developing effective interventions is no simple task.

Even with a background in physics and management and eight years of experience helping people transition from one technology to another, Kar says he is grateful to have the input of a variety of scholars at IIASA, each with a different perspective and a different set of core skills and experiences. Working in the Energy program alongside IIASA staff and fellow YSSPers from all over the world, Kar puzzles out the unsolved challenge of how to create change for the rural poor.

“That has been one of my drivers, I take it as an intellectual challenge,” said Kar. “Is there a systems approach to the problem?”

For now, Kar is happy if he can return at the end of the day to his family, which he brought with him to Austria during his time as a YSSP participant, feeling like he is opening the door to a vast literature on technology adoption and human behavior, yet untapped in the field of cooking energy access.

“This research is only a very small baby step into trying something different,” said Kar, “I think this sector has so many unanswered questions, if I can at least flag that there is a lot of literature out there in other domains and maybe we can use some of it, I think that would be good enough for me.”

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Clean air beyond the 2008 Olympics in China?

By Caroline Njoki, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

The Olympic Games creates a spectacle that enthralls the world every four years. Countries enter a competitive bidding process to select a new host, hoping to enhance their international image and attract tourism. Among many other preparations, the host nation commits to meeting recommended air quality standards to safeguard the health of athletes, visitors, and residents.

Studies indicate that air pollution can affect performance and compromise the health of those engaged in competitive sports and outdoor physical activities. Through his presentation at IIASA in July, Professor Tong Zhu from the College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University expounded on health effects arising from a major air pollutant: particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less, known as PM2.5.

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympics 2008 © rytc | flickr

PM2.5 is made up of fine particles smaller than human hair, pollen or mold. These tiny particles are released into the atmosphere from many sources: burning solid fuels and waste, wildfires, emissions from industry, vehicles, construction and mining, volcanic eruptions, and dust. ‘‘It is difficult to tackle particulate matter as its chemical composition changes when it mixes with other substances in the air. It can also be transported far from the different sources depending on weather conditions and topography,’’ said Zhu.

Once inhaled, the minute particles travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, leading to impaired brain, respiratory, and heart function. Lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lowered life expectancy are all associated with PM2.5 exposure. Taking part in oxygen-demanding physical activities such as long-distance races, jogging, and cycling requires breathing more through the mouth than nose. This increases the likelihood of inhaling harmful pollutants, especially in areas where concentrations are high.

Hosting international sport events such as the Olympics Games comes with commitment to improve air quality standards to safeguard the health of athletes, visitors, and residents © Pete Niesen | Shutterstock

China is a densely populated and industrialized country with coal as the main source of energy. Eighty-three percent of China’s population live in regions whose PM2.5 levels exceed World Health Organization’s guidelines, compared to 32% of the world population. Use of coal for domestic heating goes up during the winter, generating more particulate matter pollution indoors. In 2010, 1.2 million people died in China as a result of particulate matter pollution; it was the country’s fourth leading cause of death after diet, high blood pressure, and smoking. ‘‘Electricity would be a better option but is highly priced, hence the preference for biomass fuels by residents. Phasing out coal and switching to renewable energy and cleaner production technologies would greatly alleviate the problem,’’ said Zhu.

Zhu was involved in several initiatives to improve air quality in preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Measures included temporary relocations of more polluting industries and complete shutdown of coal plants, limiting construction projects, and transport restrictions. For instance, public transport and cycling was promoted to cut the number of vehicles on the road and reduce emissions.

Although short term, steps taken to reduce PM2.5 and other pollutants also benefited locals living in Beijing and adjacent cities that were selected as sporting and training venues. This meant fewer people seeking outpatient and inpatient medical services, and fewer deaths. The economy also benefited from a healthy labor force.

Professor Tong Zhu and Verena Rauchenwald from the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program after the presentation on health effects of PM2.5 at IIASA © Caroline Njoki | IIASA

IIASA’s own work on air pollution spans 30 years, has shaped EU air pollution policy, and is now being applied to Asian countries including China. The IIASA Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model enables countries to identify and select suitable cost-effective measures to tackle air pollution and reduce associated health problems.

The PM monitoring in China, which was initiated for the Olympic Games, using both satellite and ground-based observations, continues and has been expanded to cover more sites in the country. Information generated about air quality status is now distributed to concerned authorities to develop or reinforce regulatory measures. Air quality alerts enable residents know when it is safe to engage in outdoor activities or adopt safety measures.

China anticipates cleaner air from implementation of long-term policies and programs already in place. Investing in air quality means healthier people and alongside that, lively stadiums with athletes and cheering crowds, more medals, and world records.


Rich DQ, Kipen HW, Huang W, Wang G et al (2012). Association Between Changes in Air Pollution Levels During the Beijing Olympics and Biomarkers of Inflammation and Thrombosis in Healthy Young Adults. JAMA 307 (19): 2068-78

West JJ, Cohen A, Dentener W, Brunekreef B et al (2016). What We Breath Impacts Our Health: Improving Understanding of the Link Between Air Pollution and Health. Environmental Science and Technology 50: 4895-4904

Zhu T (2017). Health Effects of PM2.5 in China: Scientific Challenges and Policy Implications. Presentation by Professor Tong Zhu on 11 July 2017 at IIASA.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Modeling Vienna’s traffic: air pollution and health

By Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

Accidents, lane closures, and congestion all affect the flow of road traffic and harmful emissions from vehicles. Live traffic data allow congestion to be detected more accurately and provide a more precise overview of vehicle emissions at different times and places. In his project for the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), Fabian Heidegger investigates how road traffic affects air pollution in cities, using Vienna and surrounding areas as a case study.

Air pollution is a major problem in Europe and globally. Health impacts of air pollution include a range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. “10-20% of Europe’s urban population is exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), along with several other air pollutants. NO2 pollution is highest along busy roads. Technical measures have so far often been circumvented, so cities are looking for other measures to reduce the pollution load. Traffic management has therefore gained interest as a way to reduce air pollution,” says Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Heidegger’s study leader at IIASA.

To calculate the amount of air pollution that cars and other vehicles release into the air, researchers use models that apply various sets of data: traffic networks, where and how far people drive, and emission factors of different vehicle categories. Input data for the model may include how many people live in a certain area, how many of them use cars, where they normally drive, and how many grams of pollutants (such as nitric oxide and NO2 gases) their type of cars emit per kilometer.

© Radub85 |

Inner city Vienna. © Radub85 |

Most of these models rely on average daily traffic data. For Heidegger’s YSSP project, which is related to his PhD work at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences  in Vienna, he is incorporating real-time data, measured every five minutes, into a traffic simulation model developed by Intelligent Transport Systems Vienna Region. A set of detectors in and around the city record the number and speed of vehicles. In addition, location data from the taxi fleet is incorporated into the traffic simulation. Heidegger can therefore immediately identify adverse traffic conditions like stop-and-go traffic, which has a high impact on emissions. This allows for a more accurate calculation and can help design traffic interventions for improving both traffic flow and air quality.

“In the case of a road closure, local emissions will obviously be lower at the specific road but total emissions for the area could be higher than before when drivers use alternative, longer routes or end up in stop-and-go traffic,” says Heidegger.

In order to understand how these diversions and the displacement of pollutants can affect overall emissions, Heidegger will first determine the emissions per street section, and second, what the effects are of diversions from day-to-day traffic patterns. Together with researchers from the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program at IIASA, Heidegger plans to assess the impact of different intervention scenarios, for example an environmental zone in the city, where only modern cars will be allowed to enter. In a second scenario he will look at the effect of people commuting to Vienna, and a third scenario will explore the consequences of expanding pedestrian zones. The researchers hope that this study will better their understanding of the potential of traffic management to reduce air pollution.


More information

Air Pollution Policy Review 2011-2013


AIR Program

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


Is it worth it to bike to work?

By Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer (and cyclist)

In May over 50 IIASA staff members took part in the Austrian Bike to Work month (Osterreich Radelt zur Arbeit), logging 11,681 kilometers riding to and from the institute in Laxenburg. The institute took fifth place in Austria in terms of kilometers ridden, and first place in Lower Austria.

According to the Austrian initiative’s calculations, this effort translated into saving over 1900 kg of CO2 emissions, or on average 36 kg per person—which is approximately 4% of an average Austrian’s monthly CO2 emissions. However, this calculation assumed that each of the IIASA cyclists would have been otherwise driving alone in a car. Since many people ride the bus or take public transport if they’re not biking, the actual emission savings from our cycling efforts in May were in fact much less. In fact, since buses and trains run anyway, cycling to work may make no impact whatsoever on emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Does that mean it’s not worth it to make the effort?

© Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

The author’s route to the office. © Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

IIASA researcher Jens Borken has analyzed the impacts that our daily travel has on the individual climate footprint. Personal mobility—all kinds of travel—make up about one third of the average European’s annual greenhouse gas emissions: the rest come from consumption choices and household heating and energy use. Of the carbon footprint from mobility, he says, commuting generally only makes up 10-15% of that. The largest part of the mobility budget is related to shorter and longer distance leisure travel, and in particular from air travel.

“From a quantitative perspective, the climate benefit of riding your bike is small, but it can be one step on a path to a low-carbon lifestyle.” says Borken. “As researchers who work on climate change, riding a bike to work (and possibly further) brings one piece of our lives in line with the message that avoiding fossil fuel consumption is imperative. I think that that is valuable. But it need not stop there. Travel choices are important, especially for longer distances, but so are consumption choices and energy usage and efficiency.”

Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre and IIASA, recently won a grant from the European Research Council to explore the role that social influence plays in spreading climate innovations. He says, “As social animals we are strongly influenced by what others do; as psychological beings we strive for consistency. Changing a behavior – like cycling to work – may have a small impact in isolation. But this impact is magnified through positive spillover effects. Others may imitate or be inspired by our commitment to cycling. And this change in behavior may also strengthen the pro-environmental aspects of our own self-identity, reducing dissonance between our work and domestic lives, and supporting further changes in behavior.”

Of course there are benefits of cycling beyond the environmental or climate impact, which is one reason that once they start, many people keep it up. Cycling regularly can save money compared to commuting by car or public transport, and like any regular form of exercise, it can bring health benefits and stress relief. It also brings autonomy and flexibility compared to public transport.

Borken points to research showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the exposure to air pollutants  that a cyclist might experience on busy city streets—and that automobile drivers are exposed to even higher levels of air pollution within their cars. Cyclists who ride to IIASA, located about 15km outside Vienna, probably have even lower exposure to air pollution riding along tree-lined bike paths.

“Riding to work in the morning wakes me up and prepares me for the day ahead. Even if windy and challenging, the return in the evening calms the mind while riding with colleagues at a pace that allows us to chat at the end of a busy workday. It’s truly one of the best ways to get exercise and stay healthy – good for the heart, good for the environment and, most importantly, good for the soul,” says Michaela Rossini, manager of the IIASA library and a co-organizer of Bike to Work Month at the institute.

For some staff members, one side benefit of cycling to IIASAis the beautiful sunrise along the Danube River ©Michaela Rossini | IIASA

For some staff members, one side benefit of cycling to IIASA is the beautiful sunrise along the Danube River ©Michaela Rossini | IIASA


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Climate change, bioenergy, and ozone in the EU

By Carlijn Hendriks, Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) & IIASA Peccei award winner

Last summer, I participated in IIASA’s Young Scientist Summer Program, working with the Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases and Ecosystems Services and Management programs. My research focused on what impacts the EU climate and air quality policy could have on ground level ozone around the middle of this century. While clean air policies should help reduce the pollution that can lead to ozone formation, we found that that climate change and energy policies will still increase ozone concentrations and damage by mid-century, unless stricter air pollution measures are implemented.

Ozone forms through reactions of various pollutants - a process that speeds up at higher temperatures. © Damián Bakarcic via Flickr

Ozone forms through reactions of various pollutants and chemicals in the atmosphere – a process that speeds up at higher temperatures. © Damián Bakarcic via Flickr

Ozone at ground level is an air pollutant, causing health and ecosystem problems. It is also an important component of summer smog. Ozone is not emitted into the atmosphere directly, but is produced when volatile organic carbons are oxidized in the presence of  nitrogen oxides and light. Nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere mainly as a result of combustion processes (like car engines and industry), while non-methane volatile organic carbons (NMVOCs)  come in large part from vegetation, especially broad-leaf trees and some fast-growing crops.

Part of the EU energy policy is to stimulate the use of sustainable biomass as an energy source. This could lead to expansion of commercial bioenergy crop production in plantations and an increasing use of  forests. While this may help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will also increase NMVOC emissions. At the same time, EU air quality policies aim to reduce emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and man-made NMVOC. Because some steps in the ground level ozone formation process are driven by absorption of light and/or proceed faster with higher temperatures, climate change could lead to higher ground level ozone concentrations in the future.

The separate effects of these three trends on ground level ozone have been studied before, but the question remains: what will be the combined impact of a) an increase of bioenergy plantations, b) EU’s air quality policy and c) climate change on health and ecosystem damage from ground level ozone? And which of the trends is the most important? To answer these questions, I used three models to study two energy and air quality scenarios for Europe under current and possible future climate conditions.

Two energy scenarios calculated by the Price-Induced Market Equilibrium System (PRIMES) model form the basis of this work. We used a reference scenario and one in which Europe reaches 80% CO2 emission reduction in 2050. These energy scenarios were used as a basis to calculate air pollutant emissions with IIASA’s  Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model. Then we put the same scenarios into IIASA’s Global Biosphere Model GLOBIOM to obtain the change in land cover because of increasing bioenergy demand. I combined these datasets in chemistry transport model LOTOS-EUROS (the model of choice at my home institute, TNO) to calculate the impact on ground level ozone concentrations across Europe. To simulate ‘future climate’ we used the year 2003, in which Europe had a very warm summer, with temperatures 2-5 °C higher than normal.

Difference in average ozone concentration (in µg/m3) between the current situation and the 80% CO2 reduction scenario in 2050 under future climate change conditions for the period April-September. Negative numbers mean a decrease in ozone levels.

Difference in average ozone concentration (in µg/m3) between the current situation and the 80% CO2 reduction scenario in 2050 under future climate change conditions for the period April-September. Negative numbers mean a decrease in ozone levels.

We found that especially for the CO2-reduction scenario, the increase in bioenergy production could cause a slight increase in ozone damage. However, the impact of reduced emissions because of more stringent air quality policies far outweighs this effect, leading to a net reduction of ozone damage. The third effect, more efficient ozone formation in a warming climate, is so strong that in 2050 ozone damage to human health could be worse than today, especially for northwestern Europe. Stringent air quality policies close to a maximum feasible reduction scenario would be needed to make sure that health and ecosystem damage towards the middle of the century is smaller than it is today.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.