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Making room for gender and social equity in low-carbon systems

The search for low-carbon energy systems is expanding, but there is a risk in assuming that they are inherently more inclusive or just that those they replace. A new article by SEI researchers explores how social contexts shape the impact of alternative energy systems and how they might be designed more equitably.

Molly Killeen / Published on 18 November 2020
A solar engineer conducts maintenance on a solar panel in the solar-powered village of Tinginapu, India.

A solar engineer conducts maintenance on a solar panel in the solar-powered village of Tinginapu, India. Photo Credit: Engineering for Change / Flickr

With green technologies proliferating and energy transitions gathering steam, the impact of these new systems on the societies in which they are deployed is expanding, inherently altering the lives of the people living with them. To assume that these changes are always for the better, however, is to overlook the complexity of both the systems themselves and the situations which they enter into.

A recent article, co-authored by a number of SEI researchers, explores this issue, cautioning against the assertion that cleaner alternatives are necessarily a fix for existing socio-economic issues: “Inequalities can constitute and persist in low-carbon energy systems; they may not be any fairer, inclusive or more just than the conventional systems they displace.”

By reviewing literature on gender and social equity, the authors identify key themes and gaps in the existing research on these topics. Crucially, they conclude that low-carbon alternatives are no guarantee of more equitable and inclusive outcomes and it is therefore imperative that, as they are developed and implemented, the ways in which they interact with the broader context is considered.

It is crucial to recognize that energy processes and sources are implicitly shaped by existing power structures and social norms, and that different renewable energy technologies have different impacts and contributions to social costs and benefits

The authors argue that steps must be taken to better incorporate the views and experiences of those who may fall foul of clean energy transitions. Central to this idea is the issue of how, and by whom, questions about impact are framed. “It is not the technology itself that determines the outcome of a transition per se,” the authors write, but rather the interplay between the technology and “the existing socio-cultural, socio-economic and institutional contexts that determines its design, purpose, adoption and consequential effects.”

The authors identify four key themes in the literature, set out below, which touch upon different ways in which the crucial issue of context moulds the impact of alternative energy systems, and the ways in which these intersect with issues of gender and social equity.

1. Women’s labour

A central consideration is women’s labour, and the effect that energy transitions may have on it. Despite the potential benefits for women of renewable energy projects, such as reduced workload and the freeing up of time that would have previously been taken up with tasks such as collecting firewood, the authors note that this does not mean the overall outcome of the project will be ungendered. Women still may not be able to use this time to, for instance, seek paid employment, perhaps because of entrenched norms or the local economic situation, and may instead find that it is taken up by other domestic tasks. In such a situation the implementation of a new energy system will not have reduced, but rather transferred, the labour burden of women.

2. Poverty and precarity

The article also notes the effects of renewable energy systems on poverty and employment. While there are certainly benefits to energy transitions in this regard, the possible precarity of employment in private-sector-led initiatives and potential negative impact on local poverty rates as a result of labour shifts are factors that need to be accounted for.

In this respect, the voice of local communities is essential, the article’s authors conclude. Whether a transition is led by the private-sector or the state, existing socio-economic and biophysical features of a community are key in determining outcomes: “when transitions are enforced as a top-down mode of governance, local communities’ role in decision-making may be excluded or constrained, causing energy deployment and poverty alleviation goals to be misaligned with local socio-cultural and political realities.”

3. Land loss and colonial echoes 

The authors examine how the issue of land loss that may result from such projects bears echoes of colonial practices. They note that, in the push for renewable alternatives, rural and, in particular, Indigenous communities and interests are often overlooked next to broader environmental concerns. The land loss and resettlement which result from many energy initiatives can be intensely destructive, removing people from the source of their livelihoods and “fundamentally – and negatively – transform[ing] the social fabric of a community, including its power relations and gender norms.”

Moreover, the implications of land loss and resettlement are often inescapably gendered; where the new land on which communities are forced live is unfarmable, people are pushed into wage labour, something which may be significantly easier for men to pursue than women. So, the spiralling effect of the initial uprooting continues: not only are Indigenous interests “excluded from the market gains of renewable projects; those gains are also accumulated at the expense of indigenous communities.”

4. Unequal access

The final theme is that of unequal access, whereby alternative energy projects deepen social and economic divides because of barriers that prevent certain members of society from engaging with the projects. High start-up costs are often the initial hurdle, with many unable to install green technologies such as solar panels, or entering into debt to do so. And as those who can afford the technologies gain benefits from them, including a better opportunities for education and communication, gaps between groups can widen further.

The issue of energy access is clearly connected to issues of race, class and gender. One study in the US, for example, found that disparities in solar installation correlated with racial divides in both household income and ownership. This means that “gender-neutral and generic interventions … can result in benefitting the groups that are already in a more privileged position … thus perpetuating the structures of inequality”.

Technologies do not stand outside the social and political contexts within which they have been created and are being applied. There may be different outcomes and dynamics depending on the prevailing power relations, spatial and social contexts


The authors conclude that projects which fail to thoroughly and thoughtfully consult the communities into which they enter risk either doing more social harm than good, or simply help to perpetuate existing harms. However, there are ways to achieve better outcomes, and the article sets out a number of measures for doing so. In particular, and going beyond short-term gender assessments, there is a need for extensive engagement with marginalized groups, and for cross-sectoral partnerships to tackle the barriers they face, as well as long-term evaluations of the relationship between existing social structures and new energy systems.

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