LPG as a Clean Cooking Fuel: Adoption, Use, and Impact in Rural India


Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is by far the most popular clean cooking fuel in rural India, but how rural households use it remains poorly understood. Using the 2014-2015 ACCESS survey with over 8,500 households from six energy-poor Indian states, we offer a broad but detailed survey of LPG use in rural India. We find that (i) fuel costs are a critical obstacle to widespread adoption, (ii) fuel stacking is the prevailing norm as few households stop using firewood when adopting LPG, and (iii) both users and non-users have highly positive views of LPG as a convenient and clean cooking fuel. These findings show that expanding LPG use offers great promise in rural India, but affordability prevents a complete transition from traditional biomass to clean cooking fuels.

Keywords: India, energy poverty, clean cooking, technology adoption, sustained use

1. Introduction

Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is, by a wide margin, the most popular clean cooking fuel in rural India. At the same time, results from the 2011 Indian Census show that only 11 percent of rural households use LPG as their primary cooking fuel; the rest rely on burning solid fuels—biomass, coal, and dung—to address their daily cooking and heating needs (). Important policy efforts are being made to improve access and adoption of LPG in rural Indian households in hopes of addressing the massive health, economic, and social burdens of widespread solid fuel use. Cooking with solid fuels is globally recognized as a significant health hazard, with women and children facing the greatest risks (). There is now strong evidence from field studies and systematic analyses suggesting that clean fuels, as opposed to cleaner improved wood-burning stoves, are necessary to bring household air pollution (HAP) below the WHO standard for air pollution over the long term (). The adoption of clean fuels—like LPG, electricity, or ethanol—is a critical first step towards achieving the health benefits suggested by the burden of disease attributable to HAP exposure. However, sustained clean fuel use that replaces all aspects of traditional solid fuel use is paramount for realizing benefits, since even limited solid fuel use may be enough to cause health harm ().

The burdens of disease (), socio-economic impacts (), environment effects (e.g., accelerated degradation, depletion of local resources ()), and climate consequences () from solid fuel use around the world are massive. As a result, national transitions to clean fuels can have enormous multi-sectoral impacts. Through numerous policy initiatives promoting LPG access (Ujjwala) and greater subsidies for the poor (“Give it Up”), the Indian government has sought to capitalize on the potential golden thread of cooking fuels, which can be linked to 10 Sustainable Development Goals.1 Beyond health, there is evidence suggesting that clean fuels like LPG or electricity offereater potential benefits than improved cookstoves towards climate goals (). Much of the climate impact of wood-burning stoves can be attributed to methane and black carbon () – that is, non-CO2 emissions. Therefore, even efficient solid fuel combustion may contribute more to climate change than LPG.

Although LPG promises tremendous economic and health benefits, researchers still have a limited understanding of its adoption and use in rural households. Prior studies have recognized the importance of factors such as affordability (), age of household head and primary cook (), and social factors like religion, caste, and gender (). A shared limitation of all these studies, however, is that they focus primarily on the adoption of clean cooking fuels. They do not offer a comprehensive overview of the multiple dimensions of clean cooking fuels: adoption, sustained use, and impact. While the decision to adopt a clean cooking fuel is an important first step, households must also decide how much and to what end they want to use the fuel considering its advantages, disadvantages, availability, and cost. The role that clean cooking fuels play in rural lives and livelihoods after adoption, and after integration into their daily routines, warrants more attention. There has been little study that combines detailed investigation into stable (that is, outside of an experimental context where patterns are evolving and subject to intervention removal) household fuel use and cooking patterns with a large sample size.

Here we offer the first comprehensive assessment of LPG use in rural households of India. The 2014-2015 ACCESS survey with 8,568 households from 714 villages in six states of India offers a wealth of data on different dimensions of LPG adoption, use, and impact in rural India. Importantly, the use data described represent long-term cooking patterns and arrangements.

The results of this comprehensive analysis can be summarized in three core messages. First, both the cost of LPG connections and the monthly cost of the fuel are crucial obstacles to widespread adoption and use. Second, fuel stacking continues to characterize cooking with LPG in rural India. Fewer than 60% of LPG users consider it their primary cooking arrangement, and even in this group households frequently use other fuels to cook different dishes. The remaining 40%, in turn, mostly use LPG to prepare tea and snacks. In total, only 4% of LPG-using households use the fuel exclusively. Finally, LPG is not only a very popular and much appreciated fuel among its users, but even households not using LPG consider it a superior alternative to traditional choices such as firewood and cow dung.

These three central patterns have two important implications for research and practice on clean cooking fuels. The first is that cost, instead of inferior performance, is the critical obstacle to widespread adoption. Access to LPG, through increased connections (stove and placement in administrative record), in rural India has been transformed in the last decade: between 2010 and 2013 alone, nearly 45 million new LPG connections were established in India—primarily to rural households (). However, the cost of and access to cylinders (because of stagnant distribution routes) has until now not caught up to the LPG access promotions. As a result, actual LPG use is potentially limited, forcing rural households to continue using health-harming solid fuels.

The second implication is that even if Indian policymakers manage to solve the problems of cost and affordability, fuel stacking remains a fundamental obstacle to better social and health outcomes. India is not alone in this effort; for instance, in the past decade Indonesia transitioned 50 million households’ primary cooking fuel from kerosene to LPG (). There is demand around the world for continued and increased effort to provide access to clean cooking facilities () but this is just a first step. The long-term success and benefits from clean fuels, and all efforts to promote clean fuels, depend on continued use of clean fuels after adoption and the replacement of traditional cooking technologies. Improved understanding of households’ established cooking patterns with clean fuels, and motivations for continued solid fuel use after clean fuel adoption, is an important start to being able to provide clean fuels that address all household energy needs and may be used exclusively in the long term.

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Carlos F. Gould and Johannes Urpelainen

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