8. Women and SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Access to affordable, sustainable and clean energy is a precondition for gender equality and well-being. Currently, gender gaps in energy are substantial across the world. The key findings and recommendations of this chapter include the following:

  • Seven hundred seventy million people, about three-quarters of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to electricity. Despite an improvement in recent years, data from the International Energy Agency shows that COVID-19 is reversing this positive trend in Africa after six years of steady decline and the rise in poverty levels worldwide may have already made basic electricity services unaffordable for more than 100 million previous electricity users in Asia and Africa (IEA, 2020[1]); (OECD, 2020[2]).

  • Energy poverty is a worldwide phenomenon, although it is most intense in developing countries and especially affects women, who are the main users and producers of household energy. In some OECD countries, it is estimated that up to 30% of households live in energy poverty, limiting women’s and girls’ access to education and economic opportunities, and disproportionally exposing them to health risks.

  • Women can play a central role in the transition to clean energy as consumers, helping to shift energy consumption - and by leading transformative change in the energy industry. Energy is a largely male-dominated sector, although women are in general better represented in the renewable energy sector.

  • Achieving greater gender diversity in company boards and senior management positions could help to accelerate the green transition, as it would allow for a more effective integration of environmental and gender goals.

  • More systematic evidence is needed on the linkages between gender equality and clean energy goals and for aligning energy policies with the needs of women, especially in countries with a high incidence of energy poverty.

According to the IEA, 770 million people, about three-quarters of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to electricity (IEA, 2020[3]). About 3 billion people around the world lack access to clean-cooking solutions and are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution from using wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating (WHO, 2018[4]).

Sustainable Development Goal 7, affordable and clean energy, sets targets to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services (Target 7.1). It highlights the need to expand the share of clean renewable energy (Target 7.2) and emphasizes the importance of improving energy efficiency (Target 7.3). The SDG framework acknowledges the need to increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. The rationale behind acknowledges the differentiated impacts that energy poverty and pollution can have on women and children (UN, 2016[5]).

Sustainable Development Goal 7 interacts with many other SDGs. Energy is needed for many elements of basic well-being, from heating and cooking, to education (SDG 4), health (SDG 3), and transport, and hence for labour market participation. As lack of access to energy creates a development and poverty trap, ensuring affordable energy for all also supports the achievement of SDG 1 (eliminate poverty). The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that energy access is key for healthcare provision and well-being (SDG 3), as affordable electricity is needed to keep people connected at home and to run life-saving equipment in hospitals (Ogunbiyi D, 2020[6]). A growing supply of renewable, clean energy is also essential for achieving sustainable economic growth (SDG 8), building sustainable cities (SDG 11), ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG  12) as well as the transition towards a low-carbon economy and hence, the achievement of SDG 13 on climate action.

Energy poverty is a worldwide phenomenon. Though its definition varies according to context, location and population, it affects both the Global North and the Global South. In most advanced economies, energy poverty is a matter of affordability rather than access. In least-advanced economies, considerations of availability, access and reliability precede those of affordability and sustainability. In both cases, energy poverty has a strong gender equality dimension.

Energy poverty is an issue for OECD countries. In the United States, it is estimated that around 30% of households live in energy poverty (USEA, 2019[7]). In the European Union, in 2012, more than 54 million people, almost 11% of the population, had difficulty heating their homes and paying their utility bills on time. Women, especially single mothers and elderly single women, were the most affected due to lower income, physiological characteristics and behavioural patterns (Clancy, Feenstra and Daskalova, 2017[8]), (EIGE, 2020[9]).

In developing countries, lack of access to energy is an obstacle to women’s and girls’ well-being and economic opportunities. Women and girls in rural areas spend a large part of their day collecting fuelwood, which translates not only into perpetuating poverty and inequality (Dutta, Kooijman and Cecelski, 2017[10]), but also into lost opportunities for education and remunerated labour (OECD, 2018[11]). This is the case throughout much of Africa, with particularly high figures in Sierra Leone, Niger and Cameroon (see Figure 8.1) (IEA, 2017[12]). In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, women spend up to 20 or more hours per week collecting biomass fuel for cooking and heating (Bloomfield, 2014[13]).

The time spent by girls on gathering biomass fuel limits their access to education. Household electrification improves school attendance for girls and, in the long-run, women’s employment opportunities (Lewis et al., 2013[14]). Research in Brazil shows that girls in rural areas with access to electricity are 59% more likely to complete primary education by the time they are 18 years old than those without (O’Dell et al, 2015[15]). It also shows that increased access to electricity ameliorated employment opportunities for both men and women, but that women benefitted the most, as use of electric appliances freed up time spent on household chores.

The impact of energy poverty on educational outcomes also has negative intergenerational effects. Links between mothers’ education and children’s health are well established. Lower education rate of mothers is correlated with high infant stunting levels (Abuya, Ciera and Kimani-Murage, 2012[16]) and lower levels of immunisation (Özer, Fidrmuc and Eryurt, 2018[17]). A study of child mortality in 175 countries between 1970 and 2009 concluded that half of the reductions of child mortality could be attributed to improved women’s education (Gakidou et al., 2010[18]). Limited access to education discourages schooling in future generations, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle (Azomahou and Yitbarek, 2016[19]) (Mare and Maralani, 2006[20]).

Energy poverty has a significant direct impact on women’s and girls’ health and well-being. People in low- and middle-income countries, and in lower-income communities in higher-income countries, who rely on polluting sources of energy for basic needs disproportionally bear the effects of air pollution (WHO, 2018[21]). This impact is particularly felt among women and girls, who are the main users and producers of household energy around the world. As stated in Chapter 3, pregnant women are at greater risk from air pollution. Exposure to ambient air pollution is linked to adverse impacts on fertility, pregnancy and newborns, with recent evidence of fine particles crossing the placenta and leading to foetal exposure. (Bové et al., 2019[22]).

Dangerous work deriving from accessing energy resources is linked to gender-based violence (GBV). Collection of fuelwood and other resources can create tensions within communities, especially when competing over scarce resources or entering private land. Especially in humanitarian settings, fuel collection tasks come with the risk of sexual harassment or assault (UNHCR, 2016[23]). A study found that in Chad, 42% of the 673 refugee households surveyed reported incidents of GBV during firewood collection over a six-month span (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 2016[24]).

As noted in Chapter 2, women and children are the main casualties from indoor pollution generated by inefficient cooking stoves widely used in the Global South. As women generally spend more time at home than men, they are more exposed to pollutant fuels and inadequate heating, especially if they cannot rely on modern cooking facilities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 4 million people – mainly women and children – die every year as a result of indoor air pollution, as it increases the risk of stroke, pneumonia, lung disease, cancer, asthma, and other diseases (WHO, 2018[4]).

More than a quarter of the world’s population rely on traditional use of biomass for cooking and heating (see Figure 8.2), and have limited access to clean and efficient energy for lighting (IEA, 2017[12]). The negative effects of the use of traditional biomass such as the burning of wood, dung, and crop residues have been widely reported on both human health, and agriculture and ecosystems (Venkataraman et al., 2010[25]). Kerosene is often advocated as a cleaner alternative to solid fuels, biomass and coal, for cooking, and kerosene lamps are widely used for lighting in much of the developing world. Kerosene hazards include poisonings, fires, and explosions and some less investigated health impacts from kerosene’s combustion products include lung dysfunction and infectious illness (Lam et al., 2012[26]).

More sustainable energy sources that guarantee fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, health risks and climate impacts are being widely developed. By 2017, 32 countries had included an improved cookstove initiative in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as well as other initiatives to promote the use of renewable energy in specific sectors (Graichen et al., 2017[28]). These efforts need to be multiplied, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 80% of the population still relies on solid cooking fuels (Box 8.1). The transition to more sustainable fuel sources requires special attention, given that some technologies might entail trade-offs with air quality, as is the case for biofuels. Hence, greener technologies should be assessed not only according to their ability to reduce emissions but also to reduce health risks and air pollution.

Gender energy inequality may be further exacerbated by national energy policies and labour market patterns. Such inequalities can be appreciated through the allocation of fossil fuel subsidies and its impacts are visible through women’s access to transport and land use. For example, fossil fuel production subsidies often benefit more large energy producers, industries that are traditionally male-dominated. In developing countries, priority for energy access is often given to large industrial, export-oriented activities, which are typically owned by men. Women are more likely to work in the informal sector and therefore face greater difficulties in accessing energy for their economic activities. Studies from Africa confirm that woman-headed businesses often have less access to finance and energy-related services than those headed by men (UNDP, 2012[31]). Fossil fuel consumer subsidies have a demonstrated regressive effect, mostly felt by low-income women with limited access to – or who are unaware of – such subsidies (for more see Chapter 11).

Energy consumption subsidies also tend to benefit men more in both developing and developed countries, as they are bigger users of private transport. Due to their often higher economic status, but also to their behavioural preferences, men are more likely to use private cars rather than public transport. In Sweden, for instance, 70% of cars are owned and used by men (ITF, 2011[32]). A study of consumption patterns in four European countries (Germany, Norway, Greece and Sweden) found that men use considerably more energy than women for transport, ranging from 70% more in Germany to over 350% more in Greece, a gender difference largely due to the average single man spending more money on vehicles and fuel than the average single woman (Räty and Carlsson-Kanyama, 2009[33]).

The growing demand for biofuels in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has affected land use in developing countries, in particular the marginal lands and small plots harvested by women (EIGE, 2016[34]). These land transfers have deprived vulnerable households of their means of energy subsistence and often with no compensation mechanisms (Clancy, 2012[35]).

Achieving universal energy access by 2030 via clean, renewable energy can deliver triple wins: economic (investment and employment in the renewables sector), social (including women’s empowerment and improved health impacts) and environmental (lower emissions and pollution). In particular, greening energy infrastructure is a sine qua non for tackling the climate crisis and reducing pollution, two phenomena that affect women disproportionally.

Many countries are taking measures to transition away from fossil fuel use. In 2017, 13.5% of the total primary energy supply came from renewable energy sources (Statistical Office of the European Communities, 2019[36]). Currently, about 71.5% of global renewable energy is supplied by non-OECD countries (see Figure 8.3). Yet, much of the renewable energy in developing countries is not clean. Solid biofuels and charcoal cover almost 61% of the global renewables supply, and no major fluctuation has been measured since 1990 (IEA, 2019[37]). Countries need to seize the opportunity to leapfrog brown technologies altogether and move towards greener technologies, developing low-cost, renewable energy facilities based on solar and wind.

Within this transition, women have a central role to play as energy professionals, energy decision-makers and energy consumers. For instance, women and men reveal different preferences for energy policy options, especially when it comes to the energy transition and the adaptation of renewable energy (Fraune, 2016[38]). However, energy policy is often gender-blind and women tend to be underrepresented in the energy sector at all levels, including in bottom-up approaches such as community-based solutions (Fraune, 2015[39]). Acknowledging the benefits of a green transition for gender equality and the role women could play in the clean energy sector due to their behavioural preferences, calls for an urgent action to eliminate structural barriers for women’s participation in labour force and decision-making in the energy sector (Clancy and Feenstra, 2019[40]).

As primary energy managers in households, women in both developed and developing countries can play a key role in promoting sustainable energy consumption and accelerating the shift to renewable energy.

Evidence suggests that women are more responsible users of energy than men. A 2015 Canadian study on the relationship between consumers’ environmental concerns, carbon footprint and socio-economic status showed that women tend to be more environmentally concerned and engaged in pro-environmental household behaviour. Results also showed that women-led households are more likely to have a smaller carbon footprint, likely due to smaller house size, and limited vehicle ownership and use (Huddart Kennedy, Krahn and Krogman, 2015[41]). In a recent study in the United Kingdom, women reported engaging in activities with a higher energy footprint than men, but performing them using less electricity (Grünewald and Diakonova, 2020[42]). Other studies in Europe have shown that single men directly or indirectly use up to 22% more energy than single women. Women could be more receptive than men to energy conservation efforts and demonstrate a greater willingness to change their everyday behaviour to save energy (Räty and Carlsson-Kanyama, 2010[43]).

Consumer behaviour and consumption patterns vary not only according to gender, but also based on income and location. Extensive qualitative research exists on household energy consumption and time use in relation to household income and location, but more quantitative analysis at a disaggregate level (per person within household) would help build more the evidence regarding differentiated gender patterns of sustainable energy use. Research shows a link between an increase in household income and less time spent on energy-intensive household activities such as meal preparation, food expenditure, and cleaning (De Lauretis, Ghersi and Cayla, 2017[44]). Considering that these activities are traditionally carried out by women, further analysis is required on how gender equality and women’s economic empowerment may change energy household consumption.

Targeted action is needed to engage women consumers in energy efficiency practices. Connecting potential customers of clean technologies with financing opportunities available through financial institutions and NGOs is a key step in both tackling issues of energy poverty and gender inequality (IRENA, 2019[45]). Specific policy action and support mechanisms require better evidence on the gender dimension of energy use. Sex-disaggregated data is needed in order to draft specific policy recommendations based on: per capita energy consumption for men and women; the share of non-commercial energy used by men and women; the purposes for which energy is used; the amount of time spent and the effort made by men and women in providing energy for their activities; and the amount that each pays for energy (Lambrou and Piana, 2006[46]).

The possibility of small-scale, renewable energy generation is making the industry more accessible to women. As off-grid energy solutions become more popular, women have an opportunity to become more active not only as energy consumers but also as energy entrepreneurs. For instance, Windfang E.G, the first women-run, community-based energy co-operative established in Germany, began in 1991 as a small initiative of women committed to supporting the energy transition through wind energy. Today, it owns 11 wind turbines and 3 solar panels, supplying more than 3 000 households. In Germany, legislative provisions support the participation of co-operatives in auctions for onshore wind and solar PVs by setting lower tariffs for small developers (Botta, 2019[47]).

Women in developing countries are also entering the retail market for more efficient renewable energy solutions (Botta, 2019[47]). Renewable energy co-operatives provide an opportunity for women to engage all along the value chain, including in production. An example is Solar Mamas, an initiative by India-based Barefoot College that uses colour coding and sign language to teach rural women to assemble their own equipment and install lighting systems in their villages. The programme is now present in 93 countries, including in Africa and Latin America (Barefoot College, 2020[48]). Further analysis on gender-responsive policies and measures supporting women’s co-operatives could provide policy makers with the necessary tools to actively enhance women’s economic empowerment through sustainable solutions.

To support governments in creating an enabling environment for finance and investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency in emerging economies, in 2019 the OECD launched the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Mobilisation (CEFIM) programme, a five-year project funded by the Danish government (Tam, 2019[49]). One area being explored by CEFIM is whether clean energy finance and investment policies promote gender diversity and women’s empowerment. Women entrepreneurs are often disadvantaged in debt finance, as they generally have fewer assets to guarantee loans. To support a just transition and encourage innovative business models for clean energy, it is important to ensure that women and men have equal access to finance and consideration in public engagement programmes.

The same considerations apply for the financing provisions of multilateral development banks (MDBs), where allocation of funds for climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience should have a gender component encompassing labour, social, and industry and economic changes in existing production systems (GGCA, 2016[50]). MDBs are the most advanced donors in terms of integrating gender and climate change in their energy finance operations – the European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) do so routinely (EIB, 2020[51]) (EBRD, 2019[52]).

Energy is a largely male-dominated sector. For instance, in the EU, women account for less than a quarter (22.1%) of the energy sector workforce (EIGE, 2016[53]). Women are in general better represented in the renewable energy sector. A global survey conducted in 2018 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that women account for 32% of the workforce in the renewable energy sector, compared to 22% in the oil and gas industry sector, indicating that women may have a higher interest in environmental sustainability fields (IRENA, 2019[45]).

However, the study also shows that women occupy almost half of the administrative positions in the renewables sector and 35% of the non Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) technical roles, but only 28% of the STEM-related roles.1 This is linked to perceptions of gender roles – common also in other sectors - that hamper women’s participation in STEM and Research and Development (R&D) related fields, exclusion and harassment by male colleagues, and obstacles in reaching decision-making positions due to lack of supportive measures to address such gender-based barriers.2

The IEA is supporting the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) initiative, launched at the Clean Energy Ministerial in 2010. C3E focuses on enabling greater gender diversity in the clean energy professions. It brings together experts in public administration, industry and research organisations, which work together to identify best practices and share data, experiences and career development programmes. The Equal by 30 Campaign is operated under the C3E initiative, and its signatories (9 countries and more than 80 energy companies) have committed to equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities by 2030. Based on their analysis, on average 23% of total employees in 135 energy companies are female (C3E International, 2019[54]). Additionally, in 2018, the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) partnered with the European Commission and 17 leading technology companies to promote opportunities for women via the digital2equal initiative that encourages gender equality while supporting technological advancements (Eunice Ahairwe and Bilal, 2020[55]).

Greater representation of women in top management and leadership positions in the energy sector would support more “green” decisions in both the public and private sectors. As discussed in Chapter 2, private firms with gender diversity in their boards and senior management usually take more sustainable initiatives than those that do not. Yet fewer women reach senior management roles in the energy sector when compared to senior officials and managers in government and business (corporate and small enterprises) (IEA, 2020[56]).

Moving away from carbon-intensive industries in the transition to a low-carbon economy is expected to create changes in employment in different sectors, even if projections show that, at the aggregate level, employment should remain at the same levels (Albrizio et al., 2014[57]). Independently of the different scenarios analysed, disruption is expected in energy-intensive industries, but also, potentially, in construction or business services. The most affected seem to be low-skilled workers (Chateau, Bibas and Lanzi, 2018[58]).

Furthermore, Botta’s (2019) analysis on low-carbon transition shows a possible shift of workers from fossil-fuel intensive industries to low-carbon ones. Botta (2019) also argues that the transition has differential effects based on a company’s location, and on the workforce’s gender and age. International Labour Organisation (ILO) calculations project an 11-15% decrease of the workforce in “brown” industries (Botta, 2019[47]). In the case of the United Kingdom coal-mining sector, the transition affected primarily the male workers in the sector, 90% of which were displaced. Evidence shows, however, that female workers in manufacturing were crowded out, as men engaged in activities previously occupied by them (Aragón, Rud and Toews, 2018[59]).

A just transition should, therefore, guarantee equal opportunities for both men and women in the workforce. More research in coal regions, where structural changes are expected, would help identify the trends and the needs for more inclusive and sustainable job creation. This could expand beyond skills development and training, to financing and investment priorities.

Hence, considering women’s already higher engagement in the renewables sector, but low participation in STEM-related roles, new skills development should consider how to build upon existing good trends and empower women to strengthen their presence in areas that were traditionally male dominated. Governments could further promote research and innovation to create jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities for women in renewable energy value chains.

Another potential challenge of the energy transition is avoiding the ‘climate change gap’ between those who can invest in sustainability and those who cannot. For instance, energy efficiency is not only about changing attitudes but also about affordability. However, those who have access to energy efficiency technologies can increase their incomes, bridging a gap between rich and poor. While in Europe many municipalities are providing subsidies and tax benefits for house insulation, only home-owners who have the means to make an investment can benefit from such policies. Considering that women are often economically disadvantaged and that men are over-represented as tenants, such insulation and retrofitting programs might not be inclusive of women. A gender analysis is, therefore, important for spotting similar gender effects of energy policy (Clancy and Feenstra, 2019[60]).

Lastly, a just transition should also take into account the role of indigenous peoples. The 18th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) highlighted how indigenous knowledge and traditional legal systems can enable sustainable climate solutions and good governance (UN, 2019[61]). The Free Prior and Informed Consent principle, an instrument that requires bottom-up consultation and co-operation with indigenous peoples prior to developing a project, can enable synergies between indigenous knowledge and the development of cleaner technologies. In this line of work, more projects such as the Canadian government-funded project ‘A SHARED Future’ can foster engagement with indigenous women who are renewable energy leaders in their communities (A SHARED Future, 2019[62]).

A number of actions can be taken to foster synergies between gender equality and energy goals:

  • More systematic evidence gathering on the linkages between gender quality and clean energy goals.

  • Energy policies should be aligned with the needs of women, especially in countries with a high incidence of energy poverty.

  • Policy makers should take into account the implications of their energy policies on other countries, including how they affect sustainability goals and gender inequality.

  • A gender perspective should be integrated in all elements of energy planning and policy-making. There is also a need to promote the presence of women, including those from indigenous communities, within local, national and international decision-making bodies and in the energy industry itself at all policy-making stages.

  • It is essential to address structural and behavioural gender inequities to allow women participate in the energy sector at all levels: first, by encouraging more girls’ to study STEM subjects in order to develop specialised knowledge, and, second, by promoting more equal sharing of unpaid household work by men and women to allow women to apply their skills in the decision-making, both the professional and in the community setting.

  • Donors should promote the integration of gender equality in aid to climate change, as more needs to be done to improve women’s opportunities to participate in the green economy, notably through ensuring that women benefit equally from development projects focusing on clean technology and renewable energy (GENDERNET, 2015[63]).


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← 1. A more recent IRENA report on women’s engagement in the wind energy sector reaches equivalent results, also showing women less engaged in the sector in Africa (9%) and Asia-Pacific (15%) in comparison to Latin America and the Caribbean (19%), and Europe and North America (26%) (IRENA, 2020[64]).

← 2. In the IRENA 2019 survey, these measures include mainstreaming gender through audits and awareness raising in the private sector; setting supportive networks, mentorships and awards; providing better access to education and vocational training by adapting curricula; introducing gender quota and targets; breaking gender barriers by adapting workplace policies and regulations; and, ensuring better work-life balance.

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