Burning coal, wood or charcoal for cooking kills two million people worldwide, each year — more than malaria — thanks to severe respiratory diseases this causes through indoor pollution, warns an expert.

Energy poverty, which is about limited access to clean sources of energy, is practically driving half the global population to rely on such smoke producing sources of fuel, probably the biggest source of indoor pollution, says Hisham Zerriffi, who led the study.

“Energy poverty is one of the biggest human welfare issues of our day. We’re talking about more people who die each year from cooking than from malaria,” says Hisham Zerriffi, assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.

It is often women and children who have to bear the brunt of indoor air pollution, and who carry the burden of collecting fuel to burn, says Zerriffi.

Beyond health and gender equity implications, burning biomass is also tied with carbon emissions and climate change, according to a British Columbia statement.

Despite the availability of technology that can burn a variety of fuels more efficiently, governments, for-profit businesses and NGOs have made little progress in getting individuals to switch to improved cookstoves and modern fuels, adds Zerriffi.

“We need to combine new technologies with smart policies,” Zerriffi says. “We need to help create viable markets, encourage households to switch to new stoves, and fix some of the gaps in funding, especially for those at the lowest end of the income scale.”

“It’s a complicated problem because governments can’t afford to hand out improved cookstoves to a continually growing population, and the private sector needs to recover its costs so they can continue to distribute more stoves,” he says.

When the private sector got into the cookstove business a few years ago, it looked as if this could be a successful solution. Today, these businesses are having trouble. The problem is that the majority of consumers who need this product are very poor with little disposable income for stoves, says Zerriffi.

These findings were presented on Friday at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada.