The Azerbaijani Government’s decision to establish an all-male COP29 organising committee has been quickly reversed after widespread criticism. Anika Heckwolf and Eleonore Soubeyran explain why this misstep is a symptom of a much deeper issue: the persistent underrepresentation of gender and broader inclusion considerations in climate action and what else the Presidency could do to strengthen the gender and climate agenda.

When Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s announced the establishment of the country’s COP29 organising committee on 15 January, critics were quick to point out that there was not a single woman among the 28 committee members. The move was labelled as “regressive” by the campaign group She Changes Climate and condemned by a wide range of climate leaders, including 85 women leaders from business, civil society and science who voiced their concerns in a letter to the President. The global backlash was successful: before the week was out, Aliyev had backtracked and announced a revised list of members, featuring two additional men and 12 women.

The important role of the COP organising committee

While it is shocking that, in 2024, the Azerbaijani Government thought it acceptable to nominate an all-male organising committee for the UN climate conference, it is following a longstanding tradition of ignoring the importance of women, and gender more broadly, in climate action. In fact, the summits have historically been male-dominated spaces. Only five of the 28 previous COP presidents have been women, and while massive strides have been made to increase the gender balance at the summits, men continue to make up more than 60% of delegates. However, particularly after last year’s host the UAE – whose organising committee had 63% female representation – made admirable efforts towards greater gender equality (including by issuing a call-out to all Parties to bring gender-balanced delegations to the summit), Azerbaijan’s announcement presented a massive backstep.

The make-up of an organising committee is not just a question of representation for the sake of representation. A COP host country, and therefore its organising committee, has a significant impact on the outcomes of the summit. The presidency is in charge of organising and running the meeting, setting and driving the summit’s agenda. Over the history of COP summits, many presidencies have left a strong mark on summit proceedings and outcomes: COP23, under the Fijian Presidency (though held in Bonn, Germany), was the first COP presided over by a small island country and quickly became known as the ‘the Islands’ COP’ – the first COP summit to bring attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of small island countries. Meanwhile, both the failure to reach an agreement at COP15 and the success of COP21, which saw the signing of the Paris Agreement, have been, at least in part, attributed to the respective hosts’ organisational qualities and shortcomings. The likelihood of a successful COP29 – one that achieves progress in a number of critical areas – will stand and fall with the competence and negotiation skills of the COP29 organising committee.

Why gender matters in climate action

The initial absence of women from Azerbaijan’s COP organising committee raises concerns about the Presidency’s commitment to gender equality. Although it was quickly rectified, this oversight reflects a broader trend of side-lining gender perspectives in climate action and discourse, and does not only exacerbate existing gender inequalities but also undermines effective and equitable climate action.

Gender-blind adaptation activity leaves women more vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by climate impacts compared with men. Similarly, gender-blind mitigation action slows down the transition to net zero by excluding a large talent pool from the green economy. For example, just transition policies have traditionally centred on male-dominated industries like fossil fuel production, prioritising compensation and reskilling the existing formal workforce over measures to upskill and support women’s participation.

While gender-inclusive climate action benefits all genders, we know that women are more likely to champion this agenda. Women have also played a pivotal role in driving climate action in general, with Laurence Tubiana and Christiana Figueres being instrumental in countries adopting the Paris Agreement after more than two decades of failed international climate negotiations.

The Paris Agreement’s recognition of gender equality as a guiding principle for climate action – albeit 20 years after the link between gender and climate change was first acknowledged on the international stage by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – marked a significant step forward. The five-year Enhanced Lima Work Programme on Gender and its Gender Action Plan, adopted in 2020, aimed to take this principle forward by promoting a more comprehensive approach to climate change and gender. However, the implementation of these principles into tangible climate action has been too slow.

Three ways the COP29 Presidency can advance gender equality in climate action

The Azerbaijani Government’s swift response to criticism by expanding the organising committee was a step in the right direction (although the composition of the group remains off balance). However, Azerbaijan could – and should – do much more to leverage its COP29 Presidency to champion gender-inclusive climate action.

To accelerate progress, Azerbaijan could focus on the three following elements:

  • Accelerating the integration of gender in National Determined Contributions (NDCs): while 79% of Parties mention gender in their NDCs, only one-third affirm that they will take into account gender in their implementation, and just 37% express a general commitment to gender equality. With countries set to strengthen their NDCs in 2025, Azerbaijan has an opportunity to set an agenda for accelerating the integration of gender into NDCs.
  • Collaborating with the UAE on the COP28 Gender Initiative: the COP28 Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership, led by the UAE outside of the formal international negotiations, focuses on improving data quality, effective resource flows, and education, skills and capacity-building opportunities to ensure that the transition benefits all. It was endorsed by less than half of the attending countries (76 out of nearly 200). Azerbaijan, in collaboration with the UAE, can play a crucial role in increasing endorsements for this initiative and exploring ways to amplify its impact.
  • Building consensus on indicators of progress and targets: there is a pressing need for comprehensive data, clear indicators of progress, specific targets and dedicated funding to achieve gender equality in climate action. For instance, a substantial portion of funds allocated for adaptation and mitigation lacks a gender equality lens, with a large share not even screened for gender equality (40% in the case of adaptation finance). To drive progress on this agenda, COP28 saw the launch of a Call to Action launched by UN Women, together with the COP28 Presidency to urge world leaders and policymakers to produce and use better gender-environment data to drive progress. Azerbaijan could expand this initiative and build on its momentum by encouraging discussions on specific targets, dedicated funding and indicators of progress on gender equality in climate action.

Looking beyond gender

These three steps could help to strengthen the integration of gender into climate action, but inclusivity at COP should not stop there. Ever since the first meeting of the UN COP, countless traditionally marginalised groups and communities have struggled to be heard. COP presidencies play a key role in making sure they can shape the global climate agenda – so ensuring that the organising committee is a reflection of its society would be a first step. Looking ahead to 2025, a COP30 organising committee that reflects not only the gender but also the ethnic make-up of Brazil would be a way to champion the critical role indigenous people play in stewarding biodiversity hotspots in Brazil and around the world.

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