13 December 2021

Exploring the link between access to electricity and fertility

Access to electricity and modern cooking fuels, especially for women in the Global South, leads to time savings in the home, improved health, and better access to information, which in turn increase the wellbeing of women and allow them to make informed reproductive choices, according to a new study just published in Nature Sustainability.

© Parthkumar Bhatt | Dreamstime.com

© Parthkumar Bhatt | Dreamstime.com

While access to modern energy has increased significantly over the last decades, 2.6 billion people still did not have access to clean cooking energy in 2018 and 860 million had no access to electricity at all. This is a gendered problem, as its consequences fall mostly on women and girls: Their time-consuming chores and lack of electricity keep them out of school and away from modern media like TV or the internet, which is considered a crucial source of information. In addition, burning wood or charcoal to prepare food carries health hazards for everyone in the home, and again has a disproportionate impact on women and girls who tend to spend the most time indoors where they are exposed to these hazards. At the same time, almost half of women aged 15-49 who live in marriage or union worldwide have no control over their reproductive decisions, underlining the urgent need to better understand the factors that enable women to realize their reproductive rights.

In their study, the authors note that in most research on energy and fertility, observed fertility declines are interpreted as a change in reproductive choices due to altered costs and benefits from household access to electricity. The study considered three complementary theoretical channels in which access to modern energy can affect fertility by enabling women to make unconstrained and informed reproductive choices.

To this end, the researchers analyzed the relationship between access to modern energy and fertility based on panel data synthesized from 155 Demographic and Health Surveys spanning a period of 26 years. Controlling for other determinants, the results show that access to electricity and modern cooking fuels, along with education, negatively affect fertility. The results further indicate that energy and education effects are complementary and strongest in regions with initially high fertility rates.

“We found that switching to modern fuels like gas or electricity not only improves health, it also relieves women of the need to have many children, to do time-consuming housework like fetching firewood, or cook on open fires. This frees up time to seek information and education and eventually helps women realize their reproductive rights. This is a direct line connecting the switch from modern energies to the demographic transition,” explains Camille Belmin, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

“Our study highlights that expanded access to modern energy and education would accelerate the demographic transition  ̶  in other words, it would enable us to more quickly reach the point where the global population stops growing when the world transitions from low death rates but still high birth rates, to both low death- and birth rates, thereby stabilizing the global population. This means the energy demand and carbon emissions needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of energy access while ensuring gender equality and climate action would be lower in the long term than currently assumed,” notes study coauthor Roman Hoffmann, a researcher in the Migration and Sustainable Development Research Group of the IIASA Population and Just Societies Program.

“Education is undoubtedly key, too. Access to modern cooking fuels and electricity, which we sum up as modern energy, is complementary to education. Both modern energy and education are paths to more choice for women about the number of children they bear,” adds coauthor Helga Weisz from PIK.

In terms of the policy implications of their research, the authors point out that recognizing the multiple benefits of modern energy for women’s lives opens new avenues for development policies. Such programs would focus on ensuring the wellbeing of women, while increasing their ability to exercise their rights on self-determination reproductive choice, and global fertility decline would merely be a consequence.

Adapted from a press release prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Reference

Belmin, C., Hoffmann, R., Pichler, P.-P., Weisz, H. (2021). Fertility transition powered by women’s access to electricity and modern cooking fuels. Nature Sustainability DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00830-3


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Last edited: 13 December 2021

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Roman Hoffmann

Research Scholar Migration and Sustainable Development Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program

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