Four people pose for a photo in a marketplace setting (one man holds bananas))

A New Study Helps Reveal the Health Impacts of Climate Change in Ghana

June 10, 2024

Every country on Earth is affected by climate change. But climate change isn’t experienced the same everywhere, and many poorer countries are less equipped to predict and adapt to its impacts.

As part of an ambitious new three-year $3 million study funded by the Wellcome Trust, Darby Jack, Columbia Mailman professor of environmental health sciences, is working alongside colleagues at the Kintampo Health Research Centre (part of the Ghana Ministry of Health) to measure the effects of heat on overall mortality, as well as the specific impacts on birth outcomes and child development.

Two people squat over a portable stove on the ground

A demonstration of cookstove safety

Since 2007, Jack has been with researchers in Ghana to study the health risks of traditional cookstoves which burn organic matter, and the benefits of switching to devices that use liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like propane or butane. The Ghana Randomized Air Pollution and Health Study (GRAPHS) has followed a group of mothers and children for years, documenting improved heart and lung health in children using the newer cookstoves. The new study will make use of data collected through GRAPHS and other birth cohort studies to assess how heat exposure during pregnancy affects birth outcomes. Separately, the team will use data collected by three demographic surveillance systems to look at how extreme heat affects mortality. 

“The United States and other wealthy countries have extensive data on population-level health. By contrast, in low and middle-income countries, where climate impacts and vulnerabilities might look very different, these national datasets are lacking. Our study aims to help fill this gap in Ghana. Our goal is to help protect the population as extreme heat becomes more commonplace,” says Jack.

Earlier this year, Ghana and its neighboring countries in Western Africa were hit by a heatwave that saw temperatures rise to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. So far, it is unclear if the region’s climate will become more wet or arid, but both are bad news, explains Jack. Greater humidity will exacerbate the health effects of higher temperatures. A drier climate would trigger droughts and threaten agriculture. “In recent decades, Ghana has achieved major gains in child health and life expectancy,” he says. “We worry that this progress could be reversed by climate change.”

Funding for the new study is routed directly to researchers at the Kintampo Health Research Center, part of Ghana’s Ministry of Health. Columbia and other collaborators will serve as sub-contractors—a reversal of the traditional funding arrangement. Jack, who has worked with colleagues at the Center on the GRAPHS study, says the arrangement is a positive step to “decolonize science.” Policymakers in Ghana are helping to shape the study design and will use findings to help design climate adaptation policies, most of whom lack air conditioning. Interventions, Jack says, would need to be low-cost, such as providing shade and wet towels to cool off or rules around avoiding physical activity during the hottest part of the day.

Simultaneously, Jack, along with collaborators from UC Santa Barbara and KHRC, is leading a separate study funded through Columbia World Projects that is experimenting with ways to encourage the use of LPG cookstoves. Despite their health risks, many poor Ghanaians continue to use traditional wood- or charcoal-burning cookstoves because they don’t have the money on hand to buy LPG canisters. In urban areas, where wood is scarce, lower-income households settle for charcoal which can be purchased daily in small amounts. Jack and colleagues, including his sister, Kelsey Jack, an economist at UC Santa Barbara, and partners at KHRC and in the Ghana Department of Energy developed a digital wallet that allows people to save small amounts toward the purchase of canisters with incentives for making frequent deposits. The system works with mobile money which has become more common than cash in many Sub-Saharan African countries. “Anyone with a SIM card can use it,” says Jack.

(The photo at the top of this page shows left to right: Darby Jack; Flavio Malagutti, UCSB PhD student; Kelsey Jack, UCSB faculty; and Misbath Daouda, PhD ’23, UCSB faculty.)

Traditional cookstoves not only generate soot and particulate matter linked to unwanted health outcomes; they also make up 2 percent of all climate emissions globally— roughly equivalent to all emissions from global civil aviation. They also contribute to the loss of ecosystems when trees are cut for firewood. LPG cookstoves also eliminate the drudgery of collecting wood, a task usually undertaken by women; freed of this task, they have more time for schooling and employment. LPG isn’t perfect; it has its own climate emissions, but Ghana currently lacks the infrastructure for electric stoves. (In New York City, Jack works with the environmental justice group WE ACT to promote the switch from gas stoves to electric.) “The clean energy transition in Ghana will take time, and we can’t wait. We’re using the tools we have to make progress,” says Jack.

The cookstove effort got a major lift recently at the Summit on Clean Cooking in Africa, which Jack attended in Paris. Several heads of state and CEOs announced $2 billion in commitments to supporting the cookstove transition. Says Jack, “There’s a good chance this will be a watershed moment for the work we’re doing.”