The renewed emphasis on climate change is the most encouraging trend in American politics. More Americans across the political landscape are realizing that the costs of inaction are too high. Awareness of a problem, of course, is good for little if it doesn’t lead to action. One obstacle between awareness and meaningful reform is the common assumption that policies addressing climate change, economic growth, and social justice are at cross purposes.
Not so fast, claims the United Nations. In fact, the UN Development Programme is placing its money on strategies that respond to all three issues. In the preamble to a 2015 resolution adopted by the General Assembly titled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN declared that “We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet”. There are seventeen goals in total.
The United States and all other member nations chose every target carefully, convinced that achieving progress towards each goal was interdependent with the rest. There is, for example, an obvious connection between “affordable and clean energy” and “climate action”, since transitioning to low-carbon energy sources is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. The relationship between “Decent work and economic growth” and “gender equality” also appears straightforward; communities that respect the right of women to pursue a career automatically have a greater labor force than communities that do not. But how do these goals interact with each other in less conspicuous ways? Is there, for example, a connection between energy policy and gender equality?
Available data suggest that there is. Economists at the World Bank recently discovered that access to electricity in rural India boosted the socioeconomic status of women after sifting through survey data from over 41,000 households across the country. Because India is large and culturally diverse, it’s an ideal setting for observers who want to rule out alternative explanations for social trends. The authors of the study developed a quantifiable score that combined five indexes of women’s empowerment: decision-making ability, mobility, reproductive freedom, financial independence, and social participation. Overall, the authors found that electrification had enhanced women’s socioeconomic well-being by 10.7 points between 2004 and 2012. Girls from electrified homes, for example, earned better grades than their peers living off the grid. Rural women with access to electricity were also less likely to develop respiratory disease by avoiding indoor air pollution from candles and kerosene.
What makes energy access so important for gender equality? For starters, reliable electricity facilitates the use of labor-saving technology, which frees up time for education, civic engagement and paid work. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where many communities still use biofuels to heat their homes and both sexes are assigned rigid gender roles, women spend hours gathering firewood and other resources. Once a home is connected to a grid, however, keeping the lights on after dark becomes as simple as flipping a switch.
There’s precedent for this effect in the Global North during the Industrial Revolution. In 2013, French economists Claude Diebolt and Faustine Perrin observed that technological development boosted the earnings of men, leading to economic conditions that encouraged parents to spend more income on educating their daughters. Since education increases the opportunity cost of having children for women, families had fewer of them, which in turn established a virtuous circle that strengthened women’s bargaining power with their spouses.
To be clear, technological progress alone is not a magic bullet. Sociologists documenting the electrification of Mpanta, a rural fishing village in Zambia, noticed that after three years of access to a miniature grid, the local women they interviewed still performed traditional tasks such as subsistence farming and cooking food with solid fuels. In contrast, the men spent most of their time either away at work or resting in the living room. They also managed nearly all the businesses in village. Cultural expectations clearly influenced at least some of the outcomes; in conservative societies, men often decide for the entire household what appliances to purchase and may overlook the needs of their partners. However, the miniature grid system in Mpanta was also connected to a solar farm that produced very little electricity—around 60 kW—and simply could not power energy-intensive appliances such as kitchen stoves or refrigerators. Energy poverty means that households have to make painful choices regarding what devices they can use.
While the authors of the analysis rightfully cautioned that their sample size only amounted to 21 participants and therefore had limited generalizability, Dharnai, a rural village in India, faced a similar problem in 2014. Hoping to bypass traditional grid systems and their environmental impacts, villagers invited engineers from GreenPeace to install solar panels on their rooftops. Most residents were too poor to afford energy efficient appliances and caused blackouts when they purchased refrigerators and air conditioning. After public outcry, the regional governor connected Dharnai to a grid that burned coal.
The key takeaway from these cautionary tales is that the form of electricity generation a community chooses matters. Renewable sources of energy, like sunlight and wind, are dilute fuels that generate electricity only part of the day. Fossil fuels do not share this disadvantage, but they pollute the air with particulate matter and greenhouse gases. India, for example, obtains 75% of its electricity from coal, which is a cheap, abundant resource around the the developing world. Unfortunately, coal isn’t just the fastest growing fuel worldwide—it’s also the most dangerous. Pregnant women in poor countries are especially vulnerable to the adverse impacts of air pollution. Electrification policies with little regard for environmental impact will ultimately impede progress towards gender equality, as well as threaten the planet.
Readers familiar with my previous column know that I’m a vocal proponent of expanding nuclear energy to reduce and sustain economic growth. While nuclear energy is an indispensable component of any serious climate policy, some developing nations should also be able to grow their economies with a mixture of renewable energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.
Nevertheless, since nuclear power is a clean form of electricity generation that avoids energy scarcity, activists who promote women’s empowerment should champion its expansion. Facts such as these inspired Kristen Zaitz, a civil engineer and project manager at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, to help found Mothers For Nuclear, an environmental organization in California that promotes clean air through atomic energy. “As a mother you feel a responsibility to protect your children and the planet they will inherit”, she wrote. “But I reject the idea that mothers reason only with their guts and hearts, and not with their heads.” Let’s follow her example.
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