The energy transition is part of the feminist and a human rights agenda

By  Alejandra Lozano and Lorena Zenteno 

Today, women in their diversity face a complex world in crisis. The last few years of interlocking environmental inequalities and health emergencies tested the advances so far achieved in the recognition and realization of women’s equal rights across the globe.

The environmental breakdown—often referred to as the triple planetary crisis caused by the compounded effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution—are compromising the full range of internationally recognized human rights with consequences which by no means are gender blind. Women are not inherently more vulnerable, but intersection between gender, power dynamics, socioeconomic structures, social norms and expectations, do result in the planetary crisis that is experienced differently by women. In this context gender inequality intersects with other discriminations based on identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion. These intersectionalities multiply the impacts of the environmental breakdown. This means that traditional barriers faced by women become worse in the climate crisis.

In this context, it is critical we recognize that solutions tackling only the economic and social disadvantages suffered by women are insufficient to address the growing scope of challenges faced in the midst of the escalating environmental breakdown. The need to build synergies between the women’s rights and environmental agendas at large was reflected, for instance, by this year’s thematic priority of the United Nations Commission of the Status of Women (CSW66)—the main global intergovernmental body focused on women’s empowerment and the achievement of gender equality—on the gender dimensions of climate, environment, and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes. 

Feminist theory and practice  provide tools to foster the convergence of the gender and environmental fields, but this area of expertise has historically mostly remained in silos. In recent times, we have seen broader and more ambitious agendas rising and reaching out toward stakeholders not traditionally engaged in eco-social or eco-feminist discourses. One example is the nation and regionwide calls espoused by a multiplicity of stakeholders advocating for a “Feminist Green New Deal”.

The transition to new cleaner and renewable sources of energy provides the opportunity to envision these types of systemic responses we need to simultaneously tackle gender, economic, and environmental injustice. Currently, our extractive fossil-fuel energy system is not only responsible for most mayor emissions driving the climate emergency, but also reproducing structural inequalities disproportionately impacting women and girls. This vital sector of the economy is one of the most male-dominated industries historically characterized by its disregard for women’s energy needs and skills.

The energy transition comes as an opportunity to develop more inclusive societies and to introduce law and policy that acknowledge gender-specific discrimination and vulnerabilities. The spatial diffusion and flow of renewable energy technologies allow for the development of new forms of decentralized and distributed energy arrangements that can decisively contribute to the decarbonization of energy systems. Today feminist social movements across the world are promoting a different energy model based on democratic and decentralized small-scale renewable energy projects developed close to the right-holders and communities they intend to serve. Energy communities, as they are often called, are citizen and community-led renewable energy projects that use solar, wind, or hydro power technologies to produce and consume energy locally through democratic and cooperative institutional arrangements. In other words, decisions on energy models are taken democratically by an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled entity. Indeed, this model might host important benefits to  energy systems, as the participatory nature  of the decision making processes  allows to be responsive of local and gender-differentiated needs.

Energy communities are being developed through several legal forms, including cooperatives, associations, partnerships, non-for profits or small-scale business. These forms share the creation of a new “energy citizenship”, a term used to describe citizens with an active role in the energy transition. This arrangement allows individuals and communities to go from being passive energy consumers to engaged participants in the energy transition as active owners, producers, consumers, sellers, decision-makers, and distributors of sustainable energy. For instance, the Rescoop model developed in Belgium but rapidly spreading across Europe refer to energy cooperatives of organized citizens.  After purchasing a share of the cooperative and becoming an owner or member of an energy project, members share the profits and are given the opportunity to buy sustainable energy at a fair price. 

Promising experiences can most notably be found in the European Union as reflected in the “Clean Energy for All Europeans Package”, which, among other things, introduced the concepts of citizen energy community and renewable energy communities in its legislation to foster active communities’ and citizens’ involvement in renewable energy projects. Under this legislation citizens can become “prosumers”—meaning simultaneously producers and consumers— of decentralized local energy systems that foster public participation, responsiveness to local energy needs, gender-equality and community ownership. Local sustainable energy actions have also been effective in other contexts fostering the participation of women and marginalized communities in energy communities in the African region to combat energy poverty and provide new green economic and employment opportunities.

Energy communities can thus act as powerful vehicles for broad democratization and empowerment of women and local communities, as well as to instil basic democratic values and methods to realize economic and social rights and advance substantive gender equality, among other things, by:

  • Ensuring equal access to safe, reliable and sustainable energy to women.
  • Challenging gender stereotypes that reproduce ideas of the energy sector as being “reserved only for men” while fostering women’s empowerment and leadership.
  • Democratizing of expert-led energy systems and entrance of women and other marginalized groups into the energy sector.
  • Create decent green jobs for women.
  • Promoting education on energy efficiency and energy saving, focusing training efforts on women.

In this light, the energy transition should be tackled as a feminist and human rights question, to develop a gender-equal and environmentally sustainable world for all.