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In North India, COVID-19 led to a resurgence of higher-polluting home fuels

In rural North India, where much of the population still burns wood, dung, and crop residues for heating and cooking, the resulting air pollution has long taken a toll on human health.

Since 2016, the Indian government has made remarkable progress promoting universal electrification and the use of clean gas for cooking instead of biomass fuels.

A telephone survey of households in Jharkhand and Bihar, two North Indian states, however, suggests that economic hardships posed by COVID-19 have reversed some of the country’s recent gains in clean energy use.

“Just because people have access to clean energy doesn’t mean they use it,” said Ajay Pillarisetti, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, who worked on the study with a global team of researchers. “It’s expensive, especially with COVID-19’s economic turmoil and rising gas prices.”

Pillarisetti said that when the researchers compared survey results from households reporting socioeconomic hardship to those households reporting no hardship, they found that the financially-stressed households were 1.5 times as likely to use polluting fuels for lighting and 2.5 times as likely to use a polluting primary cooking fuel as households reporting no financial adversity.

“This was despite nearly all households preferring gas and electricity,” Pillarisetti said.

The high-frequency telephone survey was conducted with an Indian survey company, and targeted the primary cook of each household, or whoever else was available. Each survey took ten to fifteen minutes.

“We were really interested in seeing, with all the progress that has been made in providing access to clean fuels, whether that ongoing energy transition was resilient to COVID-19 and economic shocks,” Pillarisetti said, “and we wanted to do it in a way that was safe for households and for our field workers.”

Pillarisetti said he was pleased that the survey response rate was higher than expected.

“The findings show that high-frequency energy-related questionnaires are very useful, and also suggest interventions that can increase the resilience of transitions to clean household energy,” he said.

Any increased reliance on biomass fuels poses a particular risk for women, who typically do most of the cooking; and children, who often help them.

“Air pollution causes quite a lot of ill health and death,” said Pillarisetti. “Women and children are very heavily exposed. Women, because they typically do the cooking, and children because they are often helping their moms.”

Additional authors include Carlos F. Gould, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, who was co-lead with Dr. Pillarisetti; Lisa M. Thompson, Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Emory University School of Public Health, and Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing Emory University; Sonakshi Saluja, Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, Delhi, India; Vagisha Nandan, Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, Delhi, India; and Johannes Urpelainen, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The work was supported by the Clean Cooking Implementation Science Network of NIH, the International Growth Centre, HERCULES Center, NIEHS. The study was also partially funded by NIH in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.