UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)—”Sustainable energy for all.”
That mantra now reverberates through the halls of most institutions, whether public or private, concerned with reducing global poverty, protecting the environment and empowering women.
It’s a theme that puts African women at the center of global environmental objectives. As such, it takes up the work of longstanding grassroots activism like the Green Belt Movement, the Kenyan environmental organization founded decades ago by the late Wangari Matthai, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
A global showcase of the theme will be the 60th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, a 10-day gathering starting here March 14 that can be counted on to bring thousands of women’s rights activists from around the world.
Each year the meeting has a priority theme and this year it’s the link between women’s empowerment and sustainable development.
The New York-based World Energy Forum is joining the chorus. Each year this privately funded group, formed in 2008, hosts a big conference on how best to improve energy access, increase the share of energy from renewable sources and reduce inefficiency. The forum has declared 2016 the “year of the women” and says it will be launching programs in cooperation with the U.N. and other partners to demonstrate these ideas and foster women’s global access to energy management roles as well as clean energy sources.
In the face of existential threats to the planet by global temperature increases, Harold Oh, president of the World Energy Forum, says the planet is on the brink of a major transformation of energy practices.
At a press conference in January at U.N. headquarters, hosted by the African Union Observer Mission, Oh compared the emergence of a new energy “paradigm” to the industrial revolution, “which totally altered life as it was known for those who reaped the benefits.”
But the industrial revolution also left out large swathes of the population and introduced practices –burning coal and charcoal and animal waste–that contribute to global warming and have become unsustainable.
Women are key to the new energy paradigm, which is needed for human survival, Oh says.
But who pays for this paradigm shift is unclear.
A development funding conference in Dubai in July last year, a year when the price of oil was falling fast on world markets, failed to produce any legally binding mechanism to create flows of finance for development.
The U.N.’s latest global antipoverty plan spells out 17 interdependent targets, all of which interact with 169 sub-targets. This holistic plan is called the Sustainable Development Goals and any effort to improve women’s access to modern energy source would be clearly central to it.
However, planners of the SDGs say they would require annual expenditures of between $2 trillion and $3 trillion. Governments and philanthropies pledged a large sum of money–$25 billion—to launch the SDGs last year, but that’s far less than what is said to be needed.
If current trends continue, half of all Africans will still lack access to energy by 2050, which is the target year for universal access under the Sustainable Development Goals.
Ada Okika is executive director of UNESCO’s Center for Global Education, a network of schools, corporations and private individuals working to support UNESCO’s mission to “create learning societies with educational opportunities for all populations.”
Okika says an adequate global response to climate change means bringing more women into development policymaking, fast.
“By the end of this year we must make sure that cultural attitudes no longer inhibit [women’s] full participation in development policy, and in particular energy,” Okika said at the World Energy Forum event.
Traditional gender roles in sub-Saharan Africa hold women responsible for cooking and procuring water and fuel and carrying out most of the subsistence and small-scale commercial farming. Not only do these activities yield little-to-no income, they block the path to education that could lead to financial independence. They also rob time from just about everything else: studying, working, resting, caring for children.
They also damage women’s health and the surrounding environment. Biomass-fueled stoves, for instance, pollute the air with toxins, which can lead to respiratory infections and lung cancer, killing up to four million women per year.
Venturing into remote areas for wood or water can also expose women to sexual predators, especially in conflict zones.
For billions of women around the globe access to modern energy would change all this. It would mean attaining such things as artificial light; safe cooking methods; transportation; telecommunications; and the Internet.
By some estimates 20 percent of the global population does not have access to modern energy sources. If you count people with at least some access to electricity, but not cooking facilities fueled by a modern source, that figure can approach 40 percent of all people on the planet.
Those kinds of statistics mean 3 billion people, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa, are forced to burn coal, charcoal, wood and animal waste for cooking and heating.