Creating a Sustainable Transition from Firewood to LPG for Cooking in Colombia

How can the government of Colombia encourage the substitution of firewood with cleaner fuels in rural and peri-urban areas?

This executive summary lays out highlights from the report Creating a Sustainable Transition from Firewood to LPG for Cooking in Colombia, written by Max Bell School Master of Public Policy students as part of the 2022 Policy Lab.

Access the summary and presentation below, and read their full report here.

How can a transition from firewood to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking in rural and peri-urban areas of Colombia be effectively and sustainably achieved? This report strives to answer this question as the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy (MinMinas) begins the implementation phase of its Firewood Substitution Plan (FSP or the Plan). This policy challenge is at the intersection of several global issues that call for urgent change. Change is needed to help prevent the millions of deaths across the world that are linked to illnesses from cooking with firewood indoors. Change is needed to help reduce the trillions of dollars lost every year due to these illnesses and its disproportionate burden on women, who spend up to a quarter of their days cooking with and gathering firewood. Finally, change is needed to protect the environment from the impacts associated with the removal and burning of wood for cooking, such as forest degradation or the release of climate active emissions.

With momentum towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Colombia is well-positioned for a holistic, widespread and sustainable energy transition. In February 2023, MinMinas will devise an updated FSP roadmap based on its initial efforts and hopefully, the contributions from this report.

This transition will not be simple. Switching from firewood to LPG in rural and peri-urban communities will have impacts across health, environmental and sociocultural policy dimensions. This implies that different policy instruments will affect these dimensions to varying degrees. Could subsidising LPG strengthen adoption levels and help bring about improved health benefits? If so, what kinds of subsidy schemes best lend themselves to these outcomes - and could their inherent tradeoffs affect the likelihood of achieving these benefits? Would the same policy be a feasible mechanism to help prevent deforestation in Colombia? How would women and Indigenous peoples be equitably included in this process?

These questions allude to the first underlying theme in this report: timely choices and the costs of inaction. MinMinas will need to make tough choices on the nature of the FSP’s policy interventions despite being cognisant that some of these options may perform less effectively on a particular policy space than initially thought, as with the relationship between planned subsidies and health. Policy interventions may also not be appropriate for a particular space altogether, as with deforestation. In other cases, it will have to choose options considering factors that have not been explicitly outlined by the FSP or MinMinas - such as the processes to genuinely involve women and Indigenous peoples in the transition. Far from restricting MinMinas to thinking that only binary choices are available, this awareness is meant to highlight that there is currently no “silver bullet” solution for a sustainable firewood transition because of the complexity that will be discussed in this report. In fact, deciding to enhance the FSP is a complex choice in itself since resources and efforts will be diverted from other government priorities to address this critical issue.

Strong monitoring and evaluation (M&E) will allow for these important choices to be made in a manner that captures the complexity of the problem. All of the insights and recommendations included in this report are rooted in having robust monitoring and evaluation systems, whether it is to properly target subsidy beneficiaries, track LPG uptake in areas with high biomass availability or to accurately evaluate the use of LPG in Indigenous communities. These systems lay the foundation for more meaningful discussions and agreement on what the FSP considers to be ‘success’. Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation frameworks would also allow the FSP to react to what works and what does not more quickly and effectively. Foregoing the implementation of robust M&E frameworks into the FSP in the short-term will impede MinMinas’ ability to determine the success and impact of an intervention worth more than $20 million USD over 5 years. If MinMinas wants to effectively translate the outcomes and lessons learned from the FSP pilot phase into a long-term sustainable energy transition, there needs to be a record of qualitative and quantitative metrics. This data will help tell a narrative for progress, posterity and accountability to itself and the Colombian public.

The following key insights highlight these themes and inform the recommendations listed in this report:

Monitoring & Evaluation: Elaborations on the operationalization of M&E are scant in the Project Plan and the Interim Report. What defines “success” in the FSP is not evident from these guiding documents. There is little methodological discourse on how MinMinas and the implementing partners intend to measure FSP indicators. Without a solid M&E framework underpinning the FSP, MinMinas will have difficulty conclusively determining the success of the intervention and its impact.

LPG Subsidies: Improved energy access through subsidised LPG may not lead to desirable health outcomes because of the prevalence of stove stacking. Effective subsidy targeting is fundamental for reaching those in need at an acceptable cost to them. Different subsidy mechanisms, like cash/direct transfers, vouchers or point-of-sale all rely on this principle, but each carries unique tradeoffs. Finally, mechanism design is not the only factor in determining a subsidy’s effectiveness. The policy’s potential politicisation, as well as operational ease for the intended beneficiaries, may be other key determinants.

Environment and Deforestation: Personal firewood consumption does not significantly contribute to deforestation in Latin America. For this reason, the FSP is likely to have minimal effects on deforestation rates in Colombia. In addition, evidence indicates that rural and peri-urban communities that are adjacent to forests with high availability have lower rates of LPG adoption, consumption and sustained use. To mitigate this, there are several market mechanisms that may incentivise less firewood consumption. These include community forest management, carbon credit programs, and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes.

Socio-Cultural Implications: The transition away from firewood often excludes the interests of women and Indigenous people; thus, additional efforts must be made to guarantee that their interests are taken into account during this transition. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of rural women who prefer LPG, owing to the belief that LPG may help them overcome the barriers that prevent them from realising their full potential. Men are usually not involved in the transition process, despite having higher decision-making authority within the household. Efforts should be made to incorporate messaging targeting men who are heads of households to encourage LPG uptake. Approaches such as health messaging campaigns to promote the use of cleaner cooking fuels are insufficient. As a result, in order to be more effective, sensitization programs should be linked to aspects of daily life.

Summary of Recommendations

This report identifies three critical dimensions to addressing this policy challenge and consequently proposes the following recommendations for MinMinas. It also considers the implementation, feasibility and priority of these recommendations, along with economic analyses where pertinent.

Build stronger monitoring & evaluation: Create a framework with clear goals for a sustainable transition. Understand the strengths and limitations of chosen policy instruments, and regularly apply this knowledge to make changes that help achieve these goals.

1. Clarify how success is defined in the FSP, particularly in its problem tree and logic model.

  • Develop a clearer understanding of the LPG subsidies’ policy goal.

2. Prior to implementing the intervention, incorporate a robust monitoring and data tracking system for the FSP.

  • Convene an interdepartmental task force to spearhead this effort.
  • Assign dedicated staff and provide adequate resources to coordinate relevant subsidy and indicator data gathering and maintenance.
  • Develop a specific evaluation metric that captures LPG adoption for Indigenous communities.

3. Prioritise evaluation capacity and its implementation during and after FSP pilot phases.

4. Delineate an interdepartmental memorandum of understanding (MOU) with clear project management and engagement responsibilities for all stakeholders involved in the FSP.

5. Actively encourage other ministries invested in the health, environmental and sociocultural dimensions of transitioning to LPG to provide relevant resources and metrics for the FSP.

6. Exclude the FSP as a policy mechanism for reducing deforestation in Colombia.

Consider mixed initiatives to address stacking: Recognize the prevalence of stove stacking and adapt for a “cleaner stack”.

7. Identify the subsidy percentage that would lead to the highest level of LPG adoption.

8. Collaborate with relevant ministries to explore pairing LPG stoves with improved biomass stoves in areas with easily accessible firewood.

9. Seek solutions in partnership with Indigenous communities that respond to their distinct relationship to firewood, which may include improved biomass stoves.

10. Develop market mechanisms for areas of high forest availability.

Enhance opportunities for inclusion and accessibility: Understand and meet the unique needs of women and Indigenous peoples in this transition, and develop the tools to do so.

11. Implement communications campaigns that consider the needs of women and Indigenous peoples and highlight the benefits of LPG adoption for daily life.

MinMinas and Colombia find themselves at a policy crossroads, one where many pathways are open. By taking this report’s recommendations into account, MinMinas could strengthen its knowledge base to make the best-informed choices possible and pursue a clearer definition of success. Doing so would allow the country to not be another case study in firewood transitions, but instead become a leader and improve the wellbeing of thousands of Colombians.

Download the full version of this report here.

This Policy Lab was presented by our MPPs on July 12, 2022. Watch the video below:

About the authors:

Jainaba BeyaiJainaba Beyai

MPP Class of 2022

Paola Salas ParedesPaola Salas Paredes

MPP Class of 2022

Stephanie ScarlettStephanie Scarlett

MPP Class of 2022

Raul Scorza FigueroaRaul Scorza Figueroa

MPP Class of 2022

See the rest of the 2022 Policy Lab reports


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