Gender Inequality

Gender Day gives rise to the forgotten energy providers in the climate conversation 

Women are primary producers of biofuel worldwide.

Women are primary producers of biofuel worldwide. Image: M-Rwimo, via Wikimedia Commons

Philippe Benoit
Adjunct Senior Research Scholar, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University
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Gender Inequality

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

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  • What emerged as a pivotal issue on Gender Day from the UN climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow was the need to give voice to the forgotten, disadvantaged women in the climate conversation.
  • Millions of impoverished women are responsible for the collection of biomass energy, such as animal dung, agricultural waste and fuelwood.
  • The same women remain unaccounted for in big data.

The singular issue that emerged on Gender Day during during last year's COP26 was the need for disadvantaged women, who are the majority producers and users of biomass energy, to be included within the climate effort.

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

However, nearly absent from the agenda was the one group of actors where so many of these issues intersect: the millions -- possibly hundreds of millions -- of poverty-stricken women who remain the primary producers of this traditional biomass energy.

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These women, historically and presently, have little traction at COP and everywhere else.

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

Biomass fuel has a strong female component

Approximately two and a half billion people employ solid biomass for cooking, principally fuelwood, as well as agricultural waste and animal dung. While this gendered role is changing, cooking is still heavily female in most of the world, and so are the negative impacts of burning biomass in traditional cookstoves, such as respiratory diseases and death.

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

The gender dimension exists not only on the use side but also in how the biomass is produced. Women spanning generations are largely responsible for collecting and otherwise supplying their households with the fuelwood and other biomass used for cooking.

It's demanding and strenuous work, occupying up to 20 hours or more a week and can involve carrying loads weighing 50 pounds or more, often in unsafe settings,


Women biomass suppliers need to be accounted for

As it stands, approximately 2 billion people will still rely on biomass for cooking in 2030, with impoverished women of all ages continuing to produce biomass for their families for the foreseeable future.

Under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7, the international community has committed to eliminate biomass use in traditional cookstoves by providing universal access to alternative clean cooking technologies.

However, notwithstanding the numerous clean cooking campaigns, the question remains: Why aren't we statistically counting the women who are collecting and bringing home the biomass?

While we have detailed data on the number of people using biomass for cooking, and even the substantially smaller number of women working in the oil and gas and formal renewables sectors, we do not have a good grasp on how many women are the suppliers of this critical source of household energy.

Disadvantaged women often collect and use biomass energy for cooking.
Disadvantaged women often collect and use biomass energy for cooking. Image: Image: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A back-of-the-envelope estimate points to an astonishing potential figure of more than 300 million women and girls.

The way this breaks down is there are about 2.5 billion people who rely 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), that makes 500 million households using biomass for cooking.

If two people per household (a mother and daughter) are involved in collecting fuelwood in just one-third of those households -- one-third being a potentially low estimate -- we arrive at a figure of 300-plus million women and girl biomass producers.

Even if we halve this figure, the number is huge. It's both distressing and not surprising that in a 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.

Would setting up fuelwood stalls help? Is there a design for carriers to help alleviate the physical burden? What about organizing reliable security and safe passage for these women and girls? And providing accessible and affordable clean cooking fuels?

As I wrote with a colleague last spring, if we invested in the effort, so much can be done.

As we mobilize to address the challenge of climate change, discuss massive financing 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, and potentially hundreds of millions, of women and girls deserve a robust concerted international effort to improve their quality of life.

Philippe Benoit has over 25 years of experience working on international development and energy issues, including in management positions at the World Bank and International Energy Agency. He is currently managing director of Energy and Sustainability with Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050.

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