Green or pink? Another missed opportunity to strengthen the role of women in climate action

12 January 2023 /

7 min

When dealing with the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – better known and easier to remember as COP27 – the word “green” is often mentioned: green policies, greenwashing, European Green Deal, the Green Zone, one could go on with a long list. One colour that seems to be missing, however, is pink. In a somewhat consciously stereotypical way, we are talking about gender representation. Instead of talking about colours, which bring with them superficial nuances, it is necessary to analyse data to understand how effectively gendered policies designed to fight climate change have been implemented.

COP27 took place from the 6th to the 18th November 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and many critiques have been raised: the perpetuation of human rights violations in the country, the world’s worst plastic polluter as main sponsor, the presence of more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists – to name a few. Representatives of European and national institutions were also unhappy; Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission and leader of the Commission’s work on the European Green Deal as well as its first European Climate Law, stated that this edition was “not enough of a step forward for people and planet” as “it does not bring enough added efforts from major emitters to increase and accelerate their emissions cuts”. Criticism has also, and in some cases especially, been voiced for the unbalanced gender representation, which is strongly unfavourable for women. A BBC study found that women made up less than 34% of the negotiating teams of countries at this year’s conference. These figures, alarming as they are, are not very surprising when one considers that last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, 74% of active speaking roles were occupied by men, who had as well a highly disproportionate amount of active speaking time in the important plenary sessions.

In order  to better analyse the topic of women’s active role in the fight against climate change we must go back to 2017; in fact, at COP23 in Bonn (Germany) the Gender Action Plan (GAP) was adopted. This plan consists of a new roadmap to incorporate gender equality coupled with women’s empowerment in climate change’s discourses and actions, agreed the year before, at COP22 in Marrakech (Morocco). Its objective, in fact, is to guarantee women’s influence in climate change decision-making processes as well as  their equal representation in all aspects of the UNFCCC. Within it, five priority areas are listed: firstly, there is capacity building, knowledge sharing along with communication. This aims to systematically integrate gender considerations and apply this understanding and expertise in the thematic areas of the Convention, the Paris Agreement as well as in policies, programmes and other projects; the second identified priority relies in gender balance, participation and women’s leadership in the UNFCCC process; next, comes the concept of coherence, in order to strengthen the integration of gender considerations into the work of the UNFCCC and other UN entities. Fourth, the gender-responsive implementation coupled with means of implementation, in which gender equality jointly with empowerment’s respect and consideration of the implementation of the Convention and the Paris Agreement; lastly, the monitoring and reporting in relation to the implementation followed by the reporting of the Convention and the Paris Agreement;

However, despite the planned intentions to involve women equally, a study by WEDO, a global advocacy organisation for women’s rights, showed the minimal achievements obtained in 12 years. In fact, from 2009 to 2021, the increase of women represented in all national delegations was only eight percentage points – increasing from 30% to 38%. Moreover, this result appears even worse in 2022, as the percentage dropped to 34%, as mentioned earlier. The figures become even more alarming if we analyse the percentage of heads of delegations represented by women: in 2009 they were just 10%, in 2021 13%. The highest peak (26%) was in 2017, year of the adoption of the GAP; while the lowest in 2015, with only 9% of women as heads of delegation. In WEDO’s study, it is hypothesised that COP15 in 2009 and COP21 in 2015 show these figures as they have been considered crucial decision-making events for the UNFCCC, implying that the most senior roles taking on the head of delegation are more likely to be represented by men. WEDO’s research expressly states that if we continue at this swinging, non-progressive pace, gender parity in national COP delegations will not be achieved before 2040 and gender parity in COP delegation heads will not be achieved in the foreseeable future.

The importance of these data should be analysed considering that the ability to adapt to climate change is affected by several factors, such as: social status, poverty level coupled with  access to resources, discrimination and, also, gender. In general, women are more likely to experience intersectional forms of discrimination, making them more vulnerable to climate change: in many countries and areas of the world, they constitute the poorest section of society. The UN “Analytical study on gender-responsive climate action for the full and effective enjoyment of the rights of women” of 2019 has highlighted another key aspect to consider: the situation of women in rural communities, where they represent a source of knowledge about ecosystems along with  sustainable management practices. For example, indigenous women play a crucial role in protecting biodiversity and traditions on land management combined with medicinal use of plants. However, the dramatic changes in climate that affect these areas, their ecosystems and biodiversity have an extremely negative impact on the application and protection of this knowledge as well as  on safeguarding the land. In addition to being a serious detriment to the community as a whole, it is specifically a harm to women, their role in society, on top of  their access to resources – heavily impacting their entire lives.

In 2018 the world was shaken by a girl of just fifteen years old who started a school strike in Sweden to bring attention to the threat of climate change. Through her action, Greta Thunberg got millions of young people – and not only – to take to the streets to demand that leaders of all countries deliver concrete action in the fight against climate change. But she is not alone among the examples of women voicing these concerns. For example, we can highlight the work of Ayisha Siddiqa, a tribal Pakistani climate justice advocate, Co-funder of Polluters Out and Fossil Free University. At the COP27, she emphasised the urgent need for climate justice, calling on world leaders to do much more to protect those who are especially vulnerable to climate change, referring to the floods of summer 2022 that devastated her country. We can also evoke Christina Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, who gathered together governments, corporations, financial institutions, scientists, activists, NGOs and even spiritual communities to achieve together the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Lastly, we have the example of Mujeres Amazónicas, a community of more than a hundred women, mostly indigenous, who share the knowledge on the defence of territory, nature, education, health and preservation of culture and traditions from generation to generation. 

These are just a few examples of all women, from teenagers on school strikes to CEOs or representatives of the highest climate institutions, who fight daily for concrete protection of the Earth from the effects of climate change. The need for these examples to be known is dual: firstly, because it is necessary for these voices to be given more prominence, to be heard and to be involved in crucial decision-making processes in the fight against climate change. And secondly, but no less importantly, because we need to know about these examples, to give hope to all those young women who want to take part in this movement and personally contribute but who do not feel represented enough to do so. Only in this way will it be possible to achieve climate justice that respects the planet, all generations and the people who are often most affected by this phenomenon: there will never be climate justice without gender equality.

This article was first published in the issue 37 of the magazine

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