Gender at COP: this climate needs to change
10 November 2021 Cop26
It’s disappointing that men have been over-represented at COP26, especially since climate change disproportionately affects women, mainly in southern parts of the globe. With so many female leaders spearheading influential movements that address the real experience of climate change, it’s clear that progress on gender equality and climate must go hand in hand.
Across developed countries, presidents and prime ministers alike are framing climate change as an existential threat to all human life. For them, reality is starting to catch up with scientific projections. They can see how climate change will affect them. And this is inspiring them to act.
On the other hand, people in the global south, especially women, have been facing existential threats for decades, and not just from climate change. Since being introduced in the early 2000s, critical Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals targets are still being missed, especially on gender equality. In fact, since 2019 we’re 0.6% further away from gender parity, with distance covered to parity falling to 68%. At the current rate, it will take 135.5 years to reach gender equality, up from 99 years in 2019 (Global Gender Gap Report 2021). While the politicians at COP26 talk about about 2030, 2040 and 2050, when it comes to gender, women aren’t due to reach equality globally until the astonishingly far year of 2157 – and ten years beyond that for women in politics.
It’s clear that gender equality and climate change have been interdependent for decades, both in the way women experience the effects of climate change and in the role they play in combating it, both as leaders and citizens.
In the global south, women are disproportionately affected by climate change for a number of reasons. UN figures show that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. In addition, the burden of caregiving and providing food and water to a family more often than not falls on their shoulders. In sub-saharan Africa, where dry seasons are becoming longer and drier, this responsibility is becoming more and more difficult to fulfill.
Furthermore, climate change is worsening the situation of women and girls in education. A 2021 Malala Foundation study shows that climate-related events will prevent at least 4 million girls in low income countries from completing their education. By 2025, it estimates this number could rise to 12.5 million, causing profound effects not just on population growth and health, but across society.
While women unfairly bear the brunt of climate change, they’ve also often been stalwarts of the environment as activists and conservationists for decades. The Green Belt Movement in Kenya was formed under the National Council of Women in 1977, which was designed to respond to the needs of rural women who reported droughts, insecure food supplies and shortages of wood for fuel and fencing. Since 1977, they’ve planted more than 30 million trees and helped restore some of the vital ecosystems there to build climate resilience. In the Amazon too, groups such as AMIMA (Articulation of Indigenous Women of Maranhão) patrol the rainforest, protecting it and deterring illegal deforestation, as well as providing education and knowledge to other groups about conservation.
While the exact numbers can be hard to verify, there is also evidence that female representation in national parliaments tends to lead countries to adopt more stringent climate change policies. A study of 91 countries found that nations that elect more women also happen to support environmental protection, as well as showing that a ten unit increase in female representation resulted in 0.24 fewer metric tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita.
Gender equality brings economic benefits as well, and recent research shows that women and minority-led hedge funds perform better than their non-diverse counterparts, both on the short and long term horizon. Funds with women representation on the board achieved a median one-year return of 21.6%, whereas the ones without had only gained 12.7% during that same period. Longer term horizons show similar trends in this study, while others have yielded similar conclusions. The results of Lückerath-Rovers, M. (2013) show that companies with female directors do indeed perform better on a range of financial metrics as well as in terms of market – stock price performance.
Furthermore, this is something that is also confirmed based on the broader literature review by Post & Byron (2014). In their meta analysis of over 140 studies examining the relationship between women on boards and market performance, they found that the relationship is positive in countries with greater gender parity. However, this turns negative in countries with low gender parity.
So it’s clear that we need to achieve funding on a never-before-seen scale for the net zero transition, and a strong and well managed economy includes building diversity and gender parity into the equation, something that the evidence supports.
Gender inequality is a continuing crisis that exists side by side with the climate crisis, and neither should be prioritised at the expense of the other. In fact, dealing with the climate crisis is central to gender equality, while progress towards gender equality is likely to provide a boost to tackling climate change.
Let’s take the example of Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, who delivered a cutting (and well celebrated) address to delegates at COP 26. Her speech pointed out the huge disparity between the trillions of dollars mobilised to fight the pandemic and the failure of wealthy nations to deliver the comparably tiny $100 bn a year for climate change finance in developing countries.
Mottley stands out at COP 26 as a truth teller, a leader from a developing island nation in the global south where climate change is not just a future threat but a present one. Raising up the voices of leaders like Mottley, as well as the women and indigenous communities of the world will not only help us cope with climate change, but will also allow us to build a more inclusive and equitable world.