Woman cooking with biomass

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COP26 EXPLAINER: Biomass: what is it, why cooking with it is an issue, and what Loughborough is doing to develop and promote alternatives

A rapid and just transition to clean energy across the globe will dominate discussions at COP26 as it is crucial to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement for avoiding dangerous climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

World leaders will reveal their plans to cut carbon emissions at the Glasgow conference and Loughborough University academics from the Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) programme and their partners will be present in the SDG7 pavilion discussing the impact of cooking with biomass on people and planet, and illustrating their research into accelerating the transition to clean energy in this area.

So, what is biomass and why is burning it problematic?

Biomass is plant or animal material that contains stored chemical energy from the sun that allows it to be used as fuel to produce electricity or heat.

This fuel source is problematic as burning biomass releases carbon dioxide (CO2) – a greenhouse gas – and other harmful gases.

Currently, over a third of the world’s population cook using biomass fuels, leading to around four million premature deaths each year – primarily among women and children.

Using charcoal and wood to cook also has a significant impact on climate change and local environments, contributing three percent of the total CO2 emissions every year and one-quarter of global black carbon emissions.

It also contributes to unmanaged deforestation with consequent impacts on environmental quality and the destruction of carbon sinks.

What is Loughborough doing?

The £39.8m Loughborough-led MECS programme aims to find ways to get two billion people to use low carbon fuels to cook at home and to do so in an affordable, reliable, and sustainable way.

The five-year project is funded by UK aid and managed by Loughborough University in partnership with the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP).

The intended outcome is a market-ready range of innovations (technology and business models) that lead to an improved choice of affordable and reliable modern energy cooking services for consumers.

Professor Ed Brown, Chair in Global Energy Challenges at Loughborough University and the Principal Investigator of MECS, explained: “MECS is about finding new solutions (and in particular low carbon solutions) to these problems, to find new cooking fuels and appliances that mean we can finally begin to tackle this problem at scale.”

He goes on to illustrate how the continued reliance on cooking with biomass is too often left out of the picture when discussing how we can tackle global energy and climate issues.

“If we can find real alternatives to biomass, it will be a really important way of helping to reduce local deforestation, reduce emissions of black carbon in particular regions, and it will have an impact on local and global CO2 levels”, Professor Brown explained, stressing that “there is no point in developing new approaches to the challenge of clean cooking if those solutions are not sensitive to the low carbon world that we’re moving towards”.

Professor Brown also warned, however, that: “There’s no point in developing new low carbon technologies if people don’t have the resources with which to purchase them. MECS keeps both of these ideas central.”

He continued: “So far, MECS has achieved several things, perhaps the most important, is that we have raised the global profile of the idea that electricity (which was previously not being seen as a viable cooking fuel for significant parts of the world) – could become a major scale-able solution to the global challenge of clean cooking.

“The market development activities we’re starting to see for electric cooking are extraordinarily exciting as more and more stakeholders recognise its potential as an increasingly affordable, clean, and convenient alternative.”

MECS is taking part in a side event at the SDG7 pavilion (organised by SEforALL) at COP26. Information on the event can be found here.

More information on MECS and what the programme looks to achieve (and has achieved so far) can be found in the video below and on the dedicated website.


More on Loughborough University's COP26 PR campaign can be found here

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/223

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022, and 10th in both the Guardian University League Table 2022 and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.