Women and sustainable energy access

UN Women

Based on current trends, it will take until 2080 to achieve universal access to electricity, and until the mid-22nd century for universal access to non-polluting energy for cooking. Highly centralised energy systems often bypass the poor in low-income countries, especially in rural areas, and particularly women. Falling costs of decentralised sustainable energy technologies and the rapid uptake of mobile technologies with low transaction costs for financial transfers have enabled the emergence of new business models to accelerate decentralised energy access, particularly for the poor. This also presents huge opportunities for empowering women in terms of income-generating activities, reduction of unpaid care work, and access to information, education and health services.

In most developing countries, women are the primary household energy managers. They can be powerful agents of change in accelerating access to energy through decentralised energy solutions. Women entrepreneurs have enormous potential to create distribution and service networks in rural areas, helping to lower the cost of customer acquisition and increasing access to sustainable energy. They have a comparative advantage in terms of building distribution and servicing networks, and lowering customer acquisition costs: women have easier access to other women - the primary energy managers. They also tend to place a premium on clean, decentralised energy solutions.

However, women are under-represented in the sustainable energy sector. Only 20 per cent of the workforce in the modern renewable energy sector are women. Inappropriate regulatory frameworks, limited local access to technical skills and long-term affordable finance translate into higher investment risks for women than for men and hamper women’s empowerment and universal clean energy access efforts. For example, unequal property rights make it more difficult for women to provide collateral for loans and contribute to owners’ equity. A recent UN Women study found that for women entrepreneurs, existing structural barriers to gender equality translate into additional risks, greater likelihood that risks will translate into negative impacts for renewable energy activities, and greater severity of these impacts.    

These gender differentiated risks mean that a decentralised renewable energy project that may make sense for a male entrepreneur, will have an adverse risk/reward profile for a woman entrepreneur. To promote renewable energy, governments develop a range of public policy instruments to reduce these risks and increase returns. However, these instruments tend to be gender blind. In order to promote women entrepreneurs and scale up sustainable energy access, it is imperative that these policy instruments address the gender-differentiated risks by ensuring that energy planning and policy making actively engages women at all levels; are adequately resourced; and are effectively implemented. It is also critical to address the barriers that women entrepreneurs face in terms of access to affordable finance, including through credit enhancement mechanisms, and to technical and business skills. Finally, for energy services to make a real difference for women’s economic empowerment and sustainable development, it is critical to complement energy access with the promotion of productive uses.

Addressing these risks and ensuring women’s full and equal participation and leadership systematically in our response to climate change today is an effective mechanism to build the climate resilience of families, communities and nations tomorrow. Applying a gender lens to climate change provides solutions to seemingly intractable problems by creating virtuous circles that can simultaneously achieve multiple sustainable development goals, improve the lives and resilience of women and men everywhere, and make a climate compatible economy a reality.