Two facts put into stark relief the disproportionate impact climate change and lack of access to adequate energy have on women:
• Of the 150,000 people killed in the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone – it is estimated that 90% were women.
• Around 4 million people die each year prematurely simply from trying to cook food, heat or light their homes using solid fuels. Most of these are women and children.
We have, in a relatively short period of time, made astonishing progress in our understanding of our changing planet and the impact we’re having on it. The detrimental effects of climate change are already being felt, not only by the natural world but also on the lives of billions. Landslides, floods, hurricanes and long term environmental degradation are affecting agriculture, food security, water resources, health, human settlements and migration patterns.
Unfortunately the majority of the world’s poor are women and climate change amplifies the problems they already face. Women are more reliant on natural resources. They are more likely to be responsible for securing food, fuel and water for their families and more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. So they face the greatest challenges when those resources are disrupted. And women are often afforded a lower social standing and have less capacity to cope and respond to natural hazards. Society sometimes prevents them from acquiring the skills needed – for instance the ability to swim. And, at times of food scarcity, they fare worse than men.
Similarly, not having access to adequate energy affects women disproportionately. Forty percent of the world’s population still rely on wood, coal, charcoal or dung for cooking and heating. Inhaling smoke from conventional cooking fires and kerosene lamps in small homes, often without chimneys or windows, causes respiratory disease, heart disease and burns. Four million people die prematurely as a result of this each year – more than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. Most of these are women and children.
Solutions driven by women
What is clear to me is that solving these massive global challenges requires the ingenuity of both men and women. Indeed without the full participation of women, we have one arm tied behind our back. Thankfully, concerted moves are afoot to tackle climate change and access to energy. And I believe there are many positive stories to be told about women who are proving transformational in terms of the search for solutions.
Christiana Figueres is a Costa Rican diplomat with 35 years of experience in high level national and international policy and multilateral negotiations. She was appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010, six months after the disastrous climate change summit in Copenhagen. During the six years that followed she dedicated herself tirelessly to rebuilding the global climate change negotiating process. By putting fairness, transparency and collaboration – attributes found in abundance in women – at the heart of her approach she is widely credited with brokering what Ban Ki Moon described as “a new covenant for the future”.
And, on the front line, look at the fantastic work of Solar Sister, helping to tackle energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity. Their work combines the breakthrough potential of cheap solar energy technology with a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to the most remote communities in rural Africa. Working in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria, Solar Sister involves 2,500 entrepreneurs and has benefited 700,000 people.
I am not complacent, there is much more to do. Regrettably the UK energy profession’s gender representation is poor. 61% of the top 100 UK energy companies have all male boards. Little more than 13% of the entire energy sector in the UK are women. But there is evidence of change and efforts to bring it about. Most prominently in the renewables sector where 17% are women. Still low, but better.
Women must be, and are, global agents of change. They have a vital contribution to make, alongside men, in ensuring we throw every bit of ingenuity we can at finding the best solutions to these global challenges.
This blog post is based on a lecture given by Louise Kingham at the University of Bath on 11 May 2017.