Imagine being a mother who has to worry about how to feed her children after her crops have failed because of drought; or a girl who, instead of going to school, has to spend her days finding water to drink and wood for cooking; or a woman who goes into labor and has to give birth in the dark because her local health clinic has no electricity.
Millions of girls and women around the world are facing these realities.
In recent decades, there is growing recognition that climate, energy, health, and development are closely connected – and not gender neutral.
Girls and women are disproportionately affected by both global energy poverty and global energy consumption.
Women carry water in jugs on their heads in India. Photograph: CNN.
Around the world, more than 1.1 billion people don’t have electricity, and a billion more depend on very unreliable power. Without access to energy, millions of girls and women have to spend hours gathering wood and cooking over open fires that release toxic smoke – risking their health and safety and depriving them of educational and economic opportunities. In many communities, they also have to give birth in the dark if their home or health clinic doesn’t have power – a contributor to the world’s unacceptably high maternal mortality rate.
At the same time, the way the world currently consumes energy, specifically our reliance on dirty fossil fuels, is changing our climate in dangerous ways for girls and women.
Women are more likely to live in poverty, making them more vulnerable to climate change. They often have fewer resources to ensure their security during and after extreme weather events. In many regions, they are also more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change. And the spread of climate-related infectious diseases puts women particularly at risk as family caregivers.
Women work in a paddy field in Assam, north-east India. Photograph: Str/EPA
These challenges are daunting, but they are not unsolvable. In fact, I am optimistic that with strong action we can improve the future for girls and women and for the planet. We have affordable sustainable energy solutions that can spur economic growth, promote health, and empower women without wrecking the planet that is our collective home.
For example, solar lamps provide light in health clinics so women can safely give birth at night; off-grid renewable energy provides power to households in rural communities, enabling girls to study at night; and cleaner cookstoves and fuels allow mothers to cook dinner for their families in less time and without inhaling toxic smoke.
Around the world, women not only benefit from these solutions, but are leading the way in their development and deployment – an economic opportunity women entrepreneurs are seizing.
Expanding access to sustainable energy solutions is a key priority for the United Nations, which has launched a Sustainable Energy for All initiative to promote universal access to modern energy services, increase energy efficiency, and increase the use of renewable energy.
Children in Pakistan study using light from a solar lantern. Photograph: Buksh Foundation.
Sustainable energy is also an area ripe for innovation from businesses, governments, philanthropies, and individuals.
For example, the United Nations Foundation is working with UN agencies, the Norwegian and British governments, and other partners to help deliver sustainable power solutions to health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. My home country of Norway has also been a supporter of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership hosted by the UN Foundation that is dedicated to creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels.
While we are making progress, now is the time to hasten the transition to sustainable energy.
World leaders took an important step in September when they adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and committed to promoting development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – a phrase drawn from a UN commission I chaired nearly 30 years ago.
The global goals for sustainable development are an important acknowledgement by the international community that we do not have to choose between fostering development and fighting environmental degradation and climate change; in fact, our development depends on addressing climate and other environmental threats.
As leaders gather in Paris for the UN climate change conference, they have the opportunity – and obligation – to reach a robust agreement that paves the path for a low-carbon future and supports the people facing the harshest consequences of climate change.
In Paris, leaders can send a strong signal that sustainable energy and sustainable development are our future, which will help encourage more participation from business and civil society – benefiting all of us.
By promoting sustainability, we can improve the health and well-being of women and the planet. This is a chance we can’t afford to miss.