Why do we need to accelerate the mainstreaming of gender into climate action?
The links between climate change and gender inequality are widely recognised, yet there has been a systematic failure to integrate gender considerations into climate policy and implementation. In this commentary, Eleonore Soubeyran and Kamya Choudhary outline why this gap exists, and why adopting an intersectional lens is crucial to addressing inequalities and achieving an effective green transition.
The consequences of climate change are not gender-neutral. The social structures and cultural norms upholding gender inequality limit women’s abilities to adapt to climate change and participate in the green transformation. Yet despite growing acknowledgement of the gendered impacts of climate change, efforts to mainstream gender within climate research and policy have been slow.
For the net zero transition to be truly just and inclusive, more effort is needed to translate discussions and commitments on gender equality into concrete action and ensure that women are not left behind in the fight against climate change.
Gender in climate policy debates since 1995
The link between gender and climate change was first recognised on the international stage by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, which flagged women and the environment as one of 12 critical areas of concern for greater gender equality. However, the topic of gender remained absent from the agendas of early UN climate change conferences (‘COPs’) until COP7 in 2001. It was not until COP20 in 2014 that a specific work programme to achieve gender-responsive climate policy and action (the Lima work programme [LWPG] on gender) was established.
Since then, progress has been made to integrate gender equality into international agreements on climate change. The Paris Agreement recognised gender equality as a guiding principle for effective action in 2015, and in 2020, Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed on a five-year enhanced LWPG and a Gender Action Plan (GAP).
While significant mentions of gender can be found in 90% of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by countries to the UNFCCC to outline their progress towards climate goals, they appear in less than 20% of their long-term low-emissions development strategies. Studies on Latin America, East Africa, and the European Union have shown that even when gender is mentioned within climate policies, laws, strategies and plans, it is mostly still absent from subsequent implementation, due to both a lack of gender-sensitised policy staff and insufficient finance allocation. This demonstrates that most countries still do not recognise gender equality as a central element of climate action.
The consequences of inaction on gender and climate
Systematic failure to embed gender-sensitive approaches into climate adaptation leaves women more vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by climate change compared with men. However, not all women are affected equally: those for whom gender intersects with other marginalised identities pertaining to race, class, Indigenous identity, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, age and migrant status may experience compounded vulnerability.
Climate-related events overly impact women’s health and wellbeing, including through higher mortality rates and physical displacement from their homes. For instance, women suffer more from water scarcity than men because they have higher water needs (for caregiving, lactation, menstruation and pregnancy), and are forced to travel further to collect water, thus exposing themselves to safety issues. The damaging impacts of extreme-weather events on communities such as mental stress, economic instability (due to loss of property and livelihood), and resource stress exacerbate gender-based violence. In Vanuatu, for example, new cases of domestic violence increased by 300% after two tropical cyclones in 2011. Women also face worse economic outcomes after a natural disaster, including reduced re-entry into the labour force, larger relative losses of assets and unemployment.
When gender is not taken into account in climate mitigation policy, existing gender inequality issues are perpetuated. This can serve to slow down a country’s transition to net zero, given women’s crucial role in climate action and the particular ways they are affected by climate change. One study shows that in 2030, continuing on the current trajectory, women will hold only 25% of so-called green jobs (jobs that contribute to preserve or restore the environment, directly or indirectly). Further, women are more likely to be drawn into low-skilled jobs within high-exposure sectors (such as agriculture or construction) as labour productivity declines in hot conditions.
Mitigation policies that overlook gender diversity also undermine green innovation as they leave a significant proportion of the global population’s creative potential untapped. Closing the gender gap in the green economy could reduce global emissions by 1.5 gigatonnes (Gt) per year and improve global annual GDP by nearly 2%.
Making gender equality a central component of climate action
Despite growing consensus on the issues, some broad obstacles hinder efforts to embed gender considerations into climate policy, which include a general lack of prioritisation for gender equality, and entrenched structural barriers that restrict women’s access to opportunities, resources and decision-making.
To integrate gender priorities into climate action, countries should avoid adopting a ‘carbon tunnel vision’ that places precedence on emission reductions over other social and environmental goals, as this results in narrowly focused and maladaptive climate action (initiatives that cause unintended harm or increased vulnerability). This has been seen in examples including flood control projects in Bangladesh that cut off access to certain sources of food and livelihoods for landless women; and in the case of several developing countries where clean cooking solutions have struggled to access critical funding due to perceived marginal reduction in emissions, despite the large benefits for women’s health and livelihoods. In a 2022 report, the OECD estimated that only 0.04% of all development assistance finance targeting climate action in 2018–2019 also targeted gender equality.
Policies should also avoid reproducing simplistic assumptions and stereotypes that are counterproductive to achieving gender equality and fighting climate change. For instance, only increasing the number of women in decision-making does not necessarily address barriers to their meaningful participation. Such narrow approaches are unlikely to produce gender-equitable outcomes and can expose them to increased hostility and backlash.
The limited focus on gender in policy planning and intervention is partly down to the lack of data capturing the lived realities of women being collected – which also perpetuates the gap. Improving the availability of gender-based data would help policymakers formulate climate policies that better respond to women’s specific needs and constraints.
Addressing structural barriers to gender-sensitive climate action
Below are four specific ways in which countries and organisations can tackle the structural barriers that impede action on and prolong the existence of gender inequality.
i) Reducing green job inequalities through reforms in educational and organisational culture.
Women are underrepresented in STEM fields [science, technology, engineering and maths] (less than 30% of the world’s scientific researchers are women), in the finance sector, and in key sectors where major green reskilling efforts will take place as a result of the net zero transition (only 22% of the 6 million reskilled workers in oil and gas will be women). Without measures that address educational and job inequalities, women and girls will be unable to participate in the new green economy. To facilitate gender mainstreaming in climate action, countries and organisations should not only understand the co-benefits of pursuing gender and climate justice, but they must also address the persistent institutional barriers that perpetuate systemic gender inequalities within their own structures and practices.
ii) Addressing social and financial exclusion.
Women do not generally have the same level of financial resources or social capital (e.g. networks that facilitate the development and sharing of knowledge) as men. Evidence shows that women also struggle to access information about the climate, as well as funds, collateral, financial services and institutions, limiting their ability to take part in climate action, cope with climate-related losses, improve their resilience and invest in mitigation and adaptation technologies. Efforts to address these gender imbalances are starting to gather momentum, with recent publications on gender-smart climate finance and investment emerging from COP26, the Commonwealth Finance Access Hub and the Asian Development Bank.
iii) Improving representation in discussion forums and decision-making roles.
Women have long been under-represented in domestic and international climate change discussions and decision-making roles. At COP26, woman constituted only 37% of the delegations representing national governments and 24% of the speaking time in the plenary sessions. More women in parliament has been correlated with better climate polices, and in private organisations, gender parity improves productivity and performance. Nominating women and ensuring their meaningful participation at all levels of climate action is essential to ensure that their specific needs and contributions are reflected in policy.
iv) Distributing workloads and the role of men’s allyship.
It is important to reformulate the current gendered roles that place the burden of climate action on women in addition to the demands of reproductive, domestic and other invisible labour, plus paid employment. To give women more time and energy to participate in climate action, it is important to reduce women’s workloads through gender-equal redistribution, and for men to work proactively alongside them to address these critical issues that affect us all.
It is common for policies not to consider gender, and when gender equality is included, it often appears diluted or as a bureaucratic obligation rather than a genuine commitment. As a result, even when guidelines for gender mainstreaming are in place, policies still fail to sufficiently integrate and allocate human and financial resources for activities that support gender equality. In the run-up to COP28 this autumn, countries should recognise the interlinkages between climate action, development and gender equality goals. By adopting climate policies with an intersectional lens, countries can redress the inequalities and oppression that amplify the negative impacts of climate change and slow down the green transition.
The views in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Grantham Research Institute.