Development, Economics and finance, Environment & energy | Australia, Asia, The World

20 October 2021

As policymakers across the world look to shift their power sources away from coal, they must keep in mind the gendered impacts of their energy transitions, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt writes.

The world is experiencing a fundamental shift in global energy systems, and moving towards a fossil-fuel free, decarbonised future is the hallmark of this transition.

One question that arises within this broad picture is: how can policymakers ensure that communities are not impacted negatively, and are not left behind while economies shift away from coal?

Crucial to this is the concept of ‘just transition’. This involves redistributive justice as regional economies shift away from fossil fuel extraction.

As the process of transition accelerates, concerns about the rights of fossil fuel workers and mining communities that might be left behind have grown. The 2015 Paris Agreement reads, for instance, that ‘taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs per nationally defined development priorities’, has further legitimised a just transition and its importance in achieving a low carbon economy.

Debates on gender in a just transition are relatively new, but crucial for policymakers and industry to consider. What is known today as the ‘just transition movement’ has evolved over several decades and is now beginning to address the more complex human and social costs of fossil fuel extraction, processing, and energy transition, including gendered ones.

For instance, as economic inequality has widened in many countries, gender inequality has also remained stubbornly high. Despite decades of effort in policy and practice, many women continue to experience sustained structural and cultural barriers to economic and political participation.

Moreover, evidence points to the fact that some of these structural barriers are worsening, with more women (and men) being forced into less secure and risky forms of work with shrinking social welfare support.

This is particularly true in the coal-fired energy sector, where the erasure of women’s labour has been a consistent feature for decades.

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The part of the energy chain that is least considered through a gender lens is coal mine closure.

Most countries in the Global North have been reducing their consumption and production of coal in the move towards greener energy systems. However, it is expected that countries in the Global South, especially in Asia, that have increased their production and consumption of coal and coal-based electricity, will encounter global pressure to adopt alternative energy policies.

Evidence suggests that while all workers and coal-reliant communities will suffer to some extent from a transition, women and men will not experience these changes in the same way.

In considering coal sector transitions as a response to climate change, policymakers therefore need to consider whether relevant policies and practices respond to the gender-differentiated interests and priorities of women and men in coal-affected communities.

This would involve understanding household coping mechanisms, such as male outmigration and the formation of women’s collectives to create space for agency and change, and developing an analytical framework that can dig deeper into rigid social relations to ensure women’s wellbeing in the new low-carbon economy.

The distributional impacts of mine closure, particularly those on employment, livelihoods, and wellbeing, are felt differently by women and men, challenging and changing gender roles, relations, and identities.

Ultimately, policymakers must not ignore this key question: how are women affected by mine closure?

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Unplanned mine closure leads to shock, grief, loss of trust, and a sense of helplessness for workers and communities, and women are particularly marginalised and disempowered by the process.

When employment and livelihoods are lost in communities that rely on the coal industry, increased mental health problems and substance abuse amongst former mine workers may lead to increased rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and the abuse of women and their children.

Evidence also points to an increase in marriage breakdowns, women becoming breadwinners – albeit in insecure, low paid, or exploitative work – and an increase in women bearing the ‘triple burden’ of paid work, unpaid domestic work, and caring.

This often comes with loss of identity, stigma, and social isolation for men.

On top of this, changes in land use, lack of land ownership, and involuntary resettlement exacerbate poverty, access to land and water, food insecurity, and loss of livelihood. For Indigenous women in particular, these changes can permanently alter deeply held connections to place and cultural identity – including customary gender roles – and significantly increase underlying structural disadvantage and vulnerability.

In some cultures, women and men may have different obligations, responsibilities, and rights in terms of land ownership, use, and access. Where land is customarily owned by women, post-closure land distribution or withholding of customary land by the state as part of energy transitions can snatch these rights from women, thereby further diminishing their economic, social, and cultural status.

Ultimately, mine closure does not lead just to unemployment. For communities, it can create economic decline and an uncertain future, which often leads to acute poverty and food insecurity – issues that also manifest in a highly gendered manner.

Finally, the invisibility of gender in coal mine closure means that many mitigation and transition programs have been either poorly designed or implemented, or have failed to include women and men from impacted communities as active participants in the planning process.

So, what can leaders do to counter the gendered impacts? At a minimum, effective mine closure, and a just transition more broadly, must involve clear, regular, and up-to-date communication and dialogue with women in impacted communities regarding closure timelines prior to project commencement and throughout the project life cycle.

It must also involve the active participation of diverse local women in change and especially closure planning, preparing them for active economic, political and social lives after closure. The aim of transition should be to create a better, safer, more gender-equal society.

If policymakers acknowledge the gendered impact of mine closures, the struggles that coal-reliant communities face could be minimised as the world moves away from coal. Only a gender-transformative transition of energy systems will be called truly just.

This article is part of Policy Forum’s In Focus: Developing Asia section, which brings you analysis from experts on the policy challenges facing the region in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This piece is adapted from a forthcoming report, Just transition for all: A Feminist approach for the coal sector, written by the author for the World Bank.

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