(En)gendering a just energy transition

Barriers for women’s active participation in the renewable energy value chain are often insurmountable, particularly for those rural women working in the informal sector. Even within the marginalised, women are seen to be more adversely affected.

The rapid rise of renewable energy to meet growing energy demands and displace fossil fuel sources is a keystone element in the transition to a low carbon economy. At COP26, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the country’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. To achieve this goal, it has set a target of:

  1. Increasing non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 GW;
  2. Meeting 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy;
  3. Reducing carbon emissions by one billion tons; and,
  4. Bringing down the economy’s carbon intensity below 45%, all by 2030.

These targets deliver a range of co-benefits spanning energy security, jobs and livelihood opportunities, greater energy access, as well as reduced or no pollution from electricity generation, among others. It will also enable progress towards multiple Sustainable Development Goals. Hence, for this energy shift to be genuinely sustainable across environmental, economic and social levels, it needs to be ‘just’, so as to leave no one behind during the process.

Emerging research on energy justice and the energy-gender nexus

The emerging energy justice scholarship identifies energy injustices based on three tenets: distributive, recognitional, and procedural justice, and has expanded beyond a focus on fuel poverty. Studies have argued for accountability and action on issues related to the social and economic viability of renewable energy projects across its value chain and operations — including land use changes, resource conflicts, social inequities and human rights, which may often involve questioning the actions of the most well-intentioned developers, investors and procurers. Improper planning around renewable energy establishments is bound to cause land loss, marginalisation, and systematic discrimination, often resulting in the loss of livelihoods, identities, and cultures of many local communities, especially those of indigenous peoples.

Within the energy-gender nexus, policies and practice largely do not pay much attention to women’s knowledge in energy management or the potential merits of engaging both genders in the supply chain. Attention to gender has historically failed to take centre stage in energy theory and practice, making an appearance only comparatively recently. Other pertinent challenges identified in the energy-gender nexus are barriers to access in education, finance, guidance on career advancement, cultural norms and perceptions.

These barriers for women’s active participation in the renewable energy value chain are often insurmountable, particularly for those rural women working in the informal sector. Even within the marginalised, women are seen to be more adversely affected.

Scholarly work and discourse around the gender-energy nexus have acknowledged these challenges and also called for creating a conducive ecosystem for addressing gender inequalities. For instance, when designing energy transition policies and practices, current injustices should be acknowledged and addressed at the outset. Other proactive measures have been also been emphasised in gender mainstreaming discourses, including policies to support the recruitment and retention of women, creating women friendly workplace, flexible work hours, equal pay and equal access to training and capacity building opportunities.

Beyond research and into action

The unfortunate reality however is that the renewable energy industry remains one of the least gender diverse. Even with evolving employment opportunities such as new infrastructure, low-carbon manufacturing, product development, marketing and management, women account for only 32% of the labour force in renewable energy sector, though slightly higher than the overall energy sector participation of 22%, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Numerous studies and reports have also highlighted the low number of women professionals and their participation at the decision-making levels.

Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, Sep 6 2011:Women in a solar workshop, learning how to make solar lanters at the Barefoot College, upliftment of rural women from all over the world, Rajasthan, India. (Photo source: Pradeep Gaurs)

While all these scholarly works and well-intended suggestions for gender inclusivity are much appreciated, what goes un-noticed is the lack of concrete implementation tools and approaches to plug these identified gender gaps. Action across multiple levels is needed and stakeholders need to come together under one common platform and seek commitments to plan, address, negotiate and enable a just, sustainable, and inclusive transition, leaving the interests of no one behind (not even the developers’).

Steps towards a just and regenerative energy sector

Hence, to (re)formulate, and adopt more inclusive and gender-responsive transition pathways, strategies and policies, the Responsible Energy Initiative, a multi-year collaborative programme, seeks to ensure that the adoption and implementation of renewable energy in Asia is undertaken in a just, rights-respecting and ecologically safe way.

Within the energy-gender nexus, it strives to create means by which women and other marginalised communities are made aware of the various aspects of renewable energy deployment and actively engaged in collaborative decision-making processes. The Initiative would be at the forefront of instilling the principles of accountability and transparency among all stakeholders of the renewable energy value chain, which would be the foundation of building the adaptive capacity of communities and the workforce — especially women — in leading the just energy transition.

The importance of the Responsible Energy Initiative in the tackling energy-gender nexus lies in its ability to provide a platform to empower women by addressing the current gender imbalances (among other risks related to the energy transition, including biodiversity losses) through working closely with the government, industry, civil society and academia to highlight the centrality of gender equality in the energy transition. This kind of common platform provided by the Initiative will encourage coalitions among different stakeholders to advocate for greater inclusion, shape better messaging and upgrading gender policies and implementation. Gender sensitive action will also be specifically encouraged among industry and project developers/ implementers by supporting them to overcome organisational barriers and structural biases without compromising business interests.

These actions are bound to create ripple effect to tackle the inherent gender-specific challenges and accelerate participation and advancement of women in the sector, support their pathways to leadership positions and foster knowledge sharing and greater visibility.

This post was written by Mini Govindan, Senior Fellow, and Rashmi Murali, Associate Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). TERI is one of the lead partners on the Responsible Energy Initiative (India), alongside Forum for the Future and the World Resources Institute (India).

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