Discerning the Many Shades of Pink in the Energy Transition
By Carelle Mang-Benza | July 20, 2021
Carelle Mang-Benza is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario.
Mary Robinson, former U.N. climate envoy, once declared: “Climate change is a man-made problem and must have a feminist solution.” That statement brings two categories of actors into the conversation. But why men and women? Are we not all equal before carbon?
Not when we examine the global energy sector.
Because of climate change, the energy sector is undergoing a deep transition, marked by a growing interest in renewable energy. In this transition that promises decentralization of energy technologies and more inclusive participation, women are hardly seen. In fact, even before the current low-carbon transition, most energy policy-makers and researchers were gender-blind, focusing on issues of cost, technology, and resource availability worldwide. In the global North, energy experts routinely boasted that energy was gender-neutral, while their global South counterparts acknowledged that women were victims of energy poverty and discrimination, but mainly in rural settings.
In recent years, with social movements reaching into energy debates and women achieving more prominent positions in energy research and policy, gender blindness has gradually improved to what we might call gender myopia. However, these modest improvements still mask the experiences lived by women along the cycle that brings renewable energy to our homes. Gender myopia is simply not good enough to enable the power redistribution that is the condition of a just energy transition.
Woman-ness as usual
Commitment to care responsibilities is a common denominator across women’s lived experiences with renewable energy, from extraction to consumption. Indigenous women in extraction sites of lithium in Latin America and coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women involved in renewable energy production in El Salvador and Germany, female distributors of solar energy in Kenya and the United States, and female energy consumers in rural China and urban Indonesia all strive to improve their livelihoods and those of their households and communities. But whether they act as concerned citizens or utilize their skills on the energy market, their social roles remain defined by gender before ability, and their agency stays primarily local.
For instance, in Germany, women involved in energy production are confined in roles of shareholders in energy cooperatives with little prospect of obtaining leadership seats. While women in urban Indonesia prove to be better energy managers than men at home, there is no evidence of recognition of their skills beyond the household, in energy policy circles for example. The examples from coltan and lithium extraction sites show how some women join the male-dominated extractive industry, while others resist mining corporations in full collaboration with male activists. Regardless, in all these cases, women’s agency remains confined to their community of place or interest, distant from the global system promoting renewable energy.
While renewable energy brings opportunities for new actors, including women, to participate in the energy supply chain, there is little evidence of disruption in underlying patriarchal structures.
While these case studies confirm that renewable energy brings opportunities for new actors, including women, to participate in the energy supply chain, there is little evidence of disruption in underlying patriarchal structures. Failure to overcome the patriarchal “hangover legacy” in energy research and policy will simply birth a new energy system that reproduces the social practices of the fossil-fuel regime.
Moving forward: Seizing every opportunity to modify energy spaces
This global analysis speaks to the necessity to have more women in the spaces where energy-related decisions are made, because policy is an effective means to level the playing field. Despite the likely challenges on the road to leadership, women should seize all opportunities to steer the course of the transition. In this effort, civil society plays a crucial role, as demonstrated by global networks like ENERGIA and GWNET, which bring together women from various walks of life to promote justice in the energy transition.
Thankfully, there are some signs of change, both in the global South and global North. In Lao DR, a female Director at the Ministry of Energy and Mines launched a long-term Gender Equality Development Plan for the energy sector. Kadri Simson, the female Energy Commissioner of the European Union, recently dispelled the myth of gender neutrality in the energy sector, stating that gender equality was inextricably linked to the clean energy transition. In the U.S., the recently appointed Deputy Director for Energy Justice, Shalanda Baker, joined the Department of Energy with a track record of research and activism on gender and equity, raising hopes for a positive turn in the U.S. energy transition.
Women are pivotal actors in the renewable energy transition, not because they are inherently more environmentally-conscious, but because diversity raises new questions about intersecting experiences of ethnicity, ability, and class in the energy cycle.
Women are pivotal actors in the renewable energy transition, not because they are inherently more virtuous or environmentally-conscious, but because diversity increases the likelihood of looking under the carpet of current systems to raise new questions about intersecting experiences of ethnicity, ability, and class in the energy cycle. Such questions may bridge the experiences of Indigenous activists in South America’s Lithium Triangle and those of female coltan miners in the DRC in a conversation about the socio-ecological costs of renewable energy. They may also connect Salvadorian women gaining employment in renewable energy production with rural women in China enjoying reduced drudgery with the introduction of renewable energy services.
As Clark Miller, Jennifer Richter, and Jason O’Leary have written, “energy policy choices reconfigure societies, even as societies reconfigure energy systems, especially at moments when new energy systems are brought into being or during periods when existing systems are significantly rearranged.” The current energy transition is one such moment. Rushing towards a low-carbon economy without challenging the structures and socio-economic models that sustain the global carbon addiction would be a monumental mistake and a missed opportunity to advance justice.
Carelle Mang-Benza is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario.