Women are the forgotten energy fronts in the climate conversation

  • What emerged as a central issue at Gender Equality Day from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is the need to give a voice to the forgotten and disadvantaged women in the climate conversation.
  • Millions of poor women are responsible for collecting biomass energy, such as animal manure, agricultural waste and fuelwood.
  • The same women remain missing in the big data.

The only issue that came up on Gender Equality Day during COP26 last year was the need to include disadvantaged women, who are the majority of producers and users of biomass energy, in climate efforts.

Over the course of the two-week conference (from October 31, 2021 until November 12, 2021) in Glasgow, Scotland, topics such as climate justice, the systemic plight of disadvantaged communities and greenhouse gas emissions were front and center.

Almost absent from the agenda, however, has been the only group of actors where many of these issues intersect: the millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – of poor women who remain the primary producers of this traditional biomass energy.

These women, both historically and currently, have little attraction in the cops and everywhere else.

The international community needs to do more in the climate effort, and beyond, to improve the lives of women of all ages who work (and continue to work) in this area of ​​biomass energy.

Biomass fuel has a powerful feminine ingredient

Almost two and a half billion people use solid biomass for cooking, especially fuelwood, as well as agricultural waste and animal dung. While this gender role is changing, cooking remains largely feminine in most parts of the world, as do the negative effects of burning biomass in traditional cookstoves, such as respiratory disease and death.

Since 2014, nearly four million deaths each year have been linked to household air pollution from cooking with conventional stoves.

The gender dimension is present not only in the use aspect but also in how biomass is produced. Throughout the generations, women bear a great responsibility for collecting and supplying fuelwood and other biomass for cooking.

It is hard and arduous work, takes up to 20 hours or more per week and can involve carrying loads weighing 50 pounds or more, often in unsafe places,

Women biomass suppliers must be held accountable

As it stands, nearly two billion people will still depend on biomass for cooking in 2030, with poor women of all ages continuing to produce biomass for their families for the foreseeable future.

Under Goal 7 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the international community has committed to eliminating the use of biomass in conventional cooking stoves by providing universal access to alternative clean cooking techniques.

However, despite the many clean cooking campaigns, the question remains: why not statistically count the women who collect biomass and bring it home?

While we have detailed data on the number of people using biomass for cooking, and even the much smaller number of women working in the formal oil and gas and renewable energy sectors, we don’t have a good understanding of how many women give this a critical source of household energy.

Underprivileged women often collect biomass energy and use it for cooking.

Underprivileged women often collect biomass energy and use it for cooking.

Photo: Photo: Reuters/Andrew Biraj (Bangladesh – Tags: Community Day Pictures)

The envelope back estimate indicates a staggering potential number of more than 300 million women and girls.

The way this breaks down is that there are about 2.5 billion people who depend on solid biomass for cooking, mostly in India and sub-Saharan Africa. If we assume, for example, an average household size of five people (using India as an indicator), this makes 500 million households using biomass for cooking.

If only two people from each household (mother and daughter) were involved in collecting fuelwood in only a third of those households – a third representing a potentially low estimate – we would arrive at a figure of over 300 million women and girls biomass producers.

Even if we halve that number, the number is huge. It’s sad and not surprising that in the world of big data, we don’t have a better estimate.

Looking beyond the numbers

In addition to making these vital women part of our statistical data, we need to explore ways to empower them and improve their quality of life.

Does setting up firewood booths help? Is there a design for carriers to help ease the financial burden? How about organizing reliable security and safe passage for these women and girls? Providing clean, accessible and affordable cooking fuels?

As I wrote with a colleague last spring, if we invest in this effort, a lot can be done.

As we move to meet the challenge of climate change, discuss massive funding to transform our energy sector and work to fight poverty through clean cooking and other development programs, we must do more to provide safety and agency to the female bioenergy sector.

These millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of women and girls deserve a strong concerted international effort to improve their quality of life.

Philip Benoit has over 25 years’ experience working on international development and energy issues, including management positions at the World Bank and the International Energy Agency. He is currently the Managing Director of Energy and Sustainability with Global Infrastructure Consulting Services 2050.


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