Why supporting women and girls is an overlooked climate solution

The Egyptian COP27 Presidency chose gender, alongside water, as the theme for proceedings on Monday (14 November). Here, we explain why gender equality is so important to delivering international goals on climate mitigation and adaptation.

Why supporting women and girls is an overlooked climate solution

Pictured: Schoolgirls in India. In India, 3-5% of primary-school-aged children are not in school in any given year

By now, you’ve likely seen the statistic from Care International that just seven of the 110 world leaders to have attended COP27 during the first week were women. If not, you’ll have probably seen the memes of the group photos at the world leaders summit part of the conference on 7-8 November, bearing captions like “maybe we should start asking the women”.

Women and girls account for 51% of the global population but only 21% of government ministers are women. The percentage drops even further for governmental positions heading up nations or states.

It will doubtless take decades to buck this trend. In the meantime, nations are increasingly recognizing that climate solutions and commitments need to properly include women in their design and implementation – especially given that women are more vulnerable than men to the physical impacts of climate change, mainly because they are more likely to live in poverty and to depend on at-risk natural resources.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) does host an agreement for nations to recognise that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change and to link efforts relating to climate action and to gender equality. In a nutshell, nations state through the Gender Action Plan that they “recognise that the full, meaningful and equal participation and leadership of women in all aspects of the UNFCCC process and in national and local-level climate policy and action is vital for achieving long-term climate goals”. They also acknowledge that “gender-responsive implementation and means of implementation of climate policy and action can enable Parties to raise ambition.”

Care International is calling for the implementation of the Gender Action Plan to be given “much greater priority” in this period in between updates to the text.

The NGO’s gender equality expert Rosa Van Driel said: “CARE calls on all countries to fully engage in emphasising gender-transformative climate action and decision-making throughout negotiations at COP27. This can be done by promoting women’s and girls’ leadership and participation in the negotiating rooms. Climate finance for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage needs to be gender-transformative and reach grassroots and indigenous women and women-led and women’s rights organisations involved in climate action.”

So, aside from the obvious statement that half of the global population should not be excluded from climate decisions which affect us all, why is it so important to involve women in climate leadership at all levels?

Family planning as a climate solution

Project Drawdown, which provides a list of climate solutions and advises policymakers and private sector entities regarding their implementation, has continually worked to highlight the importance of educating women and of improving family planning services to climate efforts.

It has estimated that, if ambitions and actions matched UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relating to these topics, 68.9 gigatons of CO2e could be avoided between 2020 and 2050. For context, global CO2e emissions in 2019 and 2020 totalled around 71.5 gigatons – so this is a significant saving, and from actions that also deliver social sustainability benefits.

The family planning piece’s contribution to avoiding emissions is largely because it will slow population growth. The global population is projected to surpass eight billion people for the first time later this week, and the UN is also primed to confirm that India will surpass China as the most populous country in 2023.

It bears emphasising that the emissions footprint of an individual varies widely depending on where they live and their economic background. Someone from one of the world’s 46 least developed countries will have a lower personal footprint, on average, than someone from the US. These 46 countries collectively account for 1.1% of total global annual emissions but 14% of the global population, according to the UN. In contrast, the US has about 4% of the global population and is responsible for around 28% of global annual carbon emissions. A report recently published by Oxfam states that billionaires generate one million times more CO2e over their lifetimes than those on average earnings.

Project Drawdown does not advocate that fertility should be limited or that nations should promote smaller families. Instead, it has stated, that those able to bear children should have “full body autonomy” to decide whether to have children and how many, when, and with whom. The US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v Wade has prompted more than a dozen states to tighten abortion ban or restriction rules, which goes against what Project Drawdown is advocating for.

Spotlight on education

Regarding education, Project Drawdown recommends that every person has access to at least 12 years of high-quality. According to UNESCO, more than 58 million children of primary school age were not accessing basic education pre-pandemic, of which 32 million were female. Around half of these children are in conflict-afflicted regions and countries.

The problem is the most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, where almost one in five children of this age group are missing school. Poverty is a key contributor to this trend – many districts cannot afford adequate school staff and supplies and families in this region may not be able to afford to send all children to school. More often than not, in this case, the boys are chosen to attend school while the girls stay home or go to work. In some cases, families feel they have no other choice than to get children to start work early, commonly in agriculture or manufacturing.

Project Drawdown emphasizes that, in this way, poorer children – and in particular, poorer girls – are excluded from education. Unicef has stated that only half of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, dropping to 42% for lower secondary education and 24% in upper secondary education. As they grow older, these girls are left able to participate in academic, commercial and advocacy spaces. In short, they have less of a chance to actively contribute to climate solutions.

There are several studies concluding that, because women in low-income nations traditionally act as stewards of household resources (such as food, fuel and water) and natural resources in their regions, there are benefits for climate when they are supported to apply these learnings on a broader scale. The UN has stated that women comprise 43% of the agriculture sector’s workforce in the Global South and that women-led farms typically see crop yields that are 20-30% higher.

Similar research has been conducted to the need to ensure that women are properly involved in climate adaptation and disaster remediation work, given that they are more exposed to climate risks.

When we look at the participation of women in corporate leadership and policy leadership in more wealthy nations, there is also evidence that greater gender balance could bring better outcomes for the environment. One 2019 paper found that national parliaments with greater representation of women tended to adopt more ambitious climate policies.

In the private sector, a 2020 study from Bloomberg NEF concluded that having at least 30% women on a large business’s board “makes a key difference to climate governance and innovation”. The study analysed sustainability plans and emissions disclosure from 2,800 corporates. On average, corporates with boards consisting of 30% women or more averaged 0.6% emissions growth between 2016 and 2018. The increase was 3.5% within that timeframe for firms with no women on the board.

Spain’s IE Business School has speculated that this trend could be down to the different ways women perceive morality and ethics, including their perceived responsibilities on helping others. Women, it has stated, are more likely to look at long-term stewardship rather than one-off and short-term interventions – and, of course, solving the climate and nature crises is a long-term effort.

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