In recent years, several crises have emerged simultaneously, including the Covid-19 pandemic, extreme weather events and natural disasters, disruptions in supply chains, energy crises and the war in Ukraine. As a result, 2023 continues to be defined by various global challenges with increasingly tense geopolitical dynamics.
Energy security and the pace of transitioning to low-carbon energy have become key priorities in political and public discussions. Within this context, experts widely recognize the need for a significant reshaping of our energy systems to achieve climate neutrality. However, more attention needs to be directed to ensuring that the energy transition is not only realistic and pragmatic, but also equitable and just. This is particularly important for women, girls and marginalized groups, who deserve focused attention to guarantee their needs are met during this transformative period.
Why should we consider gender when discussing energy transitions?
In SEI’s work, we have observed both the gendered impacts of energy poverty and the ongoing transitions, as well as the role gender plays in proposed solutions.
Applying a gender lens to energy transitions allows us to ensure that the energy transition is just – and not just a transition. This approach provides a more nuanced understanding of how the energy transition might distribute benefits, costs and risks unevenly, potentially creating new inequalities or exacerbating existing ones.
Ignoring pre-existing injustices and inequalities or failing to address their root causes can heighten feelings of injustice. This can subsequently erode trust, which is essential for fostering collective action. Reduced trust can hinder the progress of the energy transition and may even contribute to the democracy deficit.
How do energy transitions affect women differently?
The message from the existing research is clear – understanding gendered impacts is crucial to achieving a just and successful transition. Studies on industry and mining, particularly coal mining transitions, show that such transitions are often more challenging for women. They typically have fewer resources, like access to land and capital, making it more difficult for them to cope with the transition process.
As mining and industrial transitions redefine gender roles, women face new challenges and a twofold burden of work and childcare. These coal transitions frequently lead to women reentering the labour market, often in lower-paying service sector jobs. Simultaneously, women take on active roles in both pro- and anti-coal movements, empowering themselves and gaining agency.
Intra-household power dynamics and the division of labour also undergo changes during energy transitions. Although these changes can lead to more equal power relations, they may create significant challenges, causing conflicts and potentially increasing gender-based violence and discrimination.
Are there any case studies we can learn from that consider gender in energy transition?
Less successful cases, such as the decline and closure of the Kodak plant in Rochester, New York between 1980 and 2015. The transition appeared successful based on economic and demographic growth and employment rates. However, when you zoom in, the real picture is that lower-skilled workers have not fared well, and inequalities have increased. Low wages have disproportionately affected women, minorities and individuals with disabilities. Supporting regional economic recovery does not guarantee equal distribution of costs and benefits. Achieving distributive justice is essential in addition to mitigating the impacts of the energy transition.
On the other hand, our work supporting Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in developing an environmental strategy and action plan has shown that a gender, social equity and poverty-informed approach to environmental policy-making enables more inclusive and practical solutions. Studies indicate that vulnerable groups are more likely to be exposed to pollution and environmental hazards and are less resilient. Access to and control over natural resources in BiH is highly gendered. Social norms tend to privilege male land ownership, leading to men owning approximately 70% of land and 97% of private forests. Elderly women in rural areas, however, hold expertise in forest resources and could play a key role in the sustainable use of non-wood forest products in BiH. This observation aligns with feminist standpoint theory – the most affected and marginalized groups often hold crucial knowledge. Thus, disadvantaged groups may have knowledge and expertise that could enable solutions.
Another good example is the Australian coal region of Latrobe Valley. Support was provided to all power station employees, associated contractors, supply chain employees and their family members through a Worker Transition Service. This involved a partnership between a local public authority created to support the transition, a union confederation and local employment service and training providers.
Learning from these different examples, how can we practically approach the energy transition while recognizing and addressing the gender dimension?
Target a broader range of people: for energy transitions to be gender-transformative rather than compensatory, plans and budgeting should target not only those who work directly in affected industries but also contractors, family members and vulnerable groups more broadly. The Australian case serves as a valuable example.
Incorporate gender equality as a goal: programming and policy-making should include data on employment, economic opportunities, livelihood impacts and environmental costs. Using only total employment figures is insufficient. Indicators should also assess the types of jobs created, who has access to them and levels of broader community resilience and innovation.
Apply locally contextualized planning: power dynamics and gender norms are highly context-specific. Locally tailored planning is necessary to avoid increasing inequality, reinforcing the vulnerability of the poorest or transferring environmental costs to the public. Assess diverse perspectives and indicators beyond employment rates and short-term solutions throughout the transition.
Finally, we must address structural causes: to advance gender justice across sectors, we must tackle structural causes such as gender norms that prevent men or women from working in certain sectors and the need to improve working conditions in female-dominated sectors.
What do you hope will change in how the energy transition is tackled in the upcoming years?
My hope for the next years is that more people start understanding climate and environmental changes as social and political struggles, in addition to the environmental and economic problem that dominate the current discourse. This understanding should be accompanied by political will. Climate mitigation is often seen as already too complex and expensive to tackle, leading to gender and social justice concerns being put aside. A strong focus on equity and justice in climate policy and programming is crucial for accelerating a just, pragmatic and realistic transition to clean energy.
Additionally, the conversation on gender justice in energy poverty and transitions should move beyond the gender binary. This requires data on how people of other genders are affected. From our work in BiH, we know that such data is usually not collected, even though in some countries up to 4% of individuals identify neither as men nor women. One thing is clear — there will be no climate justice without gender justice.
Lastly, it’s important to emphasize that incorporating gender considerations into programming and policy-making is not only beneficial, but the right thing to do. Energy is a prerequisite to the realization of human rights for billions of people, so it is crucial that gender and social equity concerns are given attention in the energy transition.
What role does science play in facilitating data-based discussions on energy poverty and transition?
It is crucial for policy and programming on energy poverty and transitions to be grounded in scientific research. Universities and research institutions, such as SEI, can guide and support these efforts by providing evidence-based knowledge. When developing policies based on scientific findings, it is important to consider epistemic justice, which encompasses whose voices are represented in research and what is deemed scientific and objective.
At SEI, we are actively working on addressing epistemic justice in our research. For example, we explore the different perspectives on the impacts of mining on Indigenous lands. Our findings so far show that we cannot truly understand the breadth of knowledge available unless we actively seek diverse perspectives.
What was the main takeaway from the 2023 Regional Forum for Sustainable Development side event on gender and energy?
Energy transitions are not merely technical and economic issues; they are also political. Power dynamics significantly influence the design of energy systems and determine who will bear the costs and reap the benefits of such transitions. Therefore, it is essential to understand underlying inequalities and power dynamics, who participates in energy discussions and whose voices count.
SEI´s Robert Watt highlighted in his introductory speech the need to reflect on the power men hold in changing the current power imbalance. It is crucial to articulate this aspect more loudly.
The regional representation and diverse participation at the event was excellent. Such platforms, where different organizations and actors can learn from each other’s experiences and build on shared knowledge, should be encouraged at all decision-making levels.
On 28 March, SEI co-hosted a side event at the 2023 Regional Forum for Sustainable Development in collaboration with UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia (ECA), UN Women Serbia and AFD (The Agence Française de Développement) to discuss gender and energy.
The event addressed energy poverty and promoted just energy transitions by offering a platform to share experiences, identify challenges and explore regional opportunities. You can read more about the event at the link below:
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