Photo credit: United Nations in Serbia

Source: UN Women

Jasminka Young is the co-founder and programme director of the RES Foundation, a leading think tank in the Western Balkans specializing in energy transition. Her work centers on the various dimensions of energy transition and air pollution, encompassing governance, planning, innovation, socio-economic factors and gender equality. With nearly 20 years of experience in development and sustainability transitions, Ms. Young previously collaborated with governmental and international organizations. During the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the UNECE region held on March 13-14, 2024, Jasminka Young participated in a peer-learning roundtable on “Solving the Rubik’s cube of the planetary crisis: lining up policy solutions for climate risks and biodiversity loss.” Supported by the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, she spotlighted the gender perspective on climate risks and biodiversity loss solutions.

“Gender and social inequality, in terms of access to assets, decision-making participation, and knowledge, are deeply intertwined with climate change and biodiversity loss. This connection forms a vicious circle that is challenging to break without targeted policy interventions and tailored policy instruments. During crises, women and girls living in poverty often bear the brunt of systemic failures, particularly evident in the Western Balkans where climate change and biodiversity loss disproportionately impact them, especially in impoverished rural households reliant on natural resources. 

Energy poverty, climate change drivers, and biodiversity loss are interconnected issues, especially regarding how low-income households contribute to these challenges through their energy production and consumption habits. Energy poverty and air pollution are symptoms of deeper issues such as fossil fuel dependency and inefficient energy practices.  

Energy should enable healthy living and economic empowerment. Sadly, for too many, including women and girls, it does the opposite. In the Western Balkans, low-income households use either cheap, highly polluting fuels or traditional biomass in outdated, inefficient stoves for domestic purposes and largely operate older, highly polluting cars. Household heating is the single largest type of energy use in the Western Balkans region, with over 60% of the population relying on solid fuels, mainly firewood for domestic heating.  More than ten million tons of firewood is burnt in over three million household devices (stoves and ovens) that are outdated, inefficient, and polluting. Additionally, two-thirds of the particulate matter pollution comes from household heating reliant on traditional wood as the main heating source. This not only has a detrimental impact on biodiversity loss, as all wood comes from local forests, but also on public health.

Due to socially prescribed gender roles, women in the Western Balkans spend more time at home cooking and bearing additional consequences of inefficient energy use. A WHO study shows that women and children’s health suffer more from air pollution in the Western Balkan. Although they represent an important building block for the more effective, resource-efficient, sustainable climate and energy policies, they remain invisible to the existing policies including their instruments. 

This is why transitioning away from polluting energy towards clean, renewable energy must be done in a way that’s fair for everyone, including women, children, people living with disabilities, etc. How can this be achieved? To use this huge untapped potential and include women and girls in just energy transition solutions, we need to empower them to act as agents of change through a careful design of integrated social, climate and energy policies and targeted and supportive policy instruments that leave no one behind. 

Our study shows that poorer households, including single-headed female households, but also health professionals in the Western Balkans, are not aware of how detrimental wood-fired stoves are to both the users’- and public health with little or no knowledge of the alternatives. Many of them are not even aware that they live in a state of energy poverty. Therefore, the first intervention would be to increase their knowledge. The second intervention is related to the design of supportive, targeted measures. We need to ensure that energy poverty and its gender perspective receive the recognition it deserves by policymakers at all levels, especially at the local level as the affordability, accessibility and efficiency of energy affect both those in a state of energy poverty and everybody else. It is widely recognized that women have different needs for energy and different resources than men. It is necessary to include and consult women when planning energy rehabilitation and reconstruction of public buildings, in order to implement a just energy transition. 

To induce an effective change, we firstly need to address the structural drivers of social inequity and poverty in an integrated manner to mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss and pave the way for a just transition. Secondly, we need to strengthen the broader development planning framework and within it ensure gender-responsive budgeting. It must target public spending to end women’s and girls’ energy and transport poverty and ensure that public resources are allocated and spent to respond to the needs and demands of women and girls. Thirdly, within the process of climate and energy policy planning and implementation, it is essential to ensure that National and Integrated Energy and Climate Plans are transparent, created in a participative manner, and that they elaborate in detail on the social and gender dimension, energy poverty, traditional biomass use, the role of women and girls in energy transitions, and so on. This is not the case now. Fourthly, it is essential to design diverse and flexible financial schemes as poor people cannot co-finance just energy transition, and institutionalize a gender perspective into the feasibility studies, technical programs, and projects of development banks. This is also not the case in the WB region. 

Finally, it is critical to include women in the design and implementation of local-level policies and solutions as they are closer to the target group (women and girls in poverty). Measures designed in this way, both from the side of users and from the side of policy designers, are a prerequisite for successful changes that align with the just energy transition principles.”