12. Women and SDG13 – Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

This chapter analyses the relationship between gender equality (SDG 5) and climate change (SDG 13). It considers both gender-specific impacts of climate change as well as the role of women tackling it. The main findings are the following:

  • In general, women are more vulnerable to climate change due to their dependence on natural resources and structural inequity in their access to and control of such resources. Women are more likely to be victims of increasingly severe environmental hazards (droughts, fires and floods), accounting for more than 75% of displaced persons. Social and economic norms tend to exacerbate the cumulative effects of climate related events.

  • While the Paris Agreement stresses the contribution of gender equality and women’s empowerment to fighting climate change as well as the specific impact of climate change on women, few countries are effectively integrating a gender perspective in their impact assessments and response strategies and collecting the necessary data to implement this goal.

  • National climate strategies, including National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) need to include a gender dimension, including the use of Gender Impact Assessment training as a key tool to support adaptation and mitigation actions, with a focus on areas such as transport planning, urban safety, consumption patterns, health and energy use.

  • The role of women in climate-related grassroots movements is increasing, and there is close to gender parity in a number of environment-related UN processes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yet, women remain underrepresented in formal decision-making in both the public and private sectors on issues that have a key impact on climate change, such as finance, health, energy and transport.

  • Increasing the presence of women in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors can accelerate climate action, as women in such positions often put a strong focus on tackling climate change and ensuring environmental sustainability.

The impact of climate change and large-scale environmental hazards is intensifying and taking a growing toll on economies and livelihoods. A number of tipping points in climate change will soon be or are already being reached, triggering feedback loops with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) together with UC Louvain note that natural disaster occurrence has almost doubled in the past 20 years compared to the previous 20, leading to approximately 1.23 million deaths, that is an estimated 60,000 deaths per year, and almost doubled cost in damages (UN, 2020[1]). More specifically, developing nations experienced deaths rates more than four times higher than developed ones. Take for instance, the growing intensity and frequency of storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, heatwaves and wildfires in the world – which have collectively quadrupled since the 1970s (Easterling et al., 2012[2]).

Over 450 disasters occurred in the United States alone in 1995-2015 (UNISDR, 2015[3]). An April 2019 report pegged the economic cost of climate-related impacts to be USD 224 billion per annum by 2090 in the United States, considering impacts across “health, infrastructure, electricity, water resources, agriculture, and ecosystems,” (Nuccitelli, 2019[4]). One-third of the cost estimate is attributable to heat-related deaths, with the report estimating an additional 1 300 to 9 300 mortalities per year across 49 cities in the United States, depending on the level of climate action taken (Nuccitelli, 2019[4]).The global cost of delayed action to the increasing challenges of climate change, considering a 2oC stabilisation target, would reach 17% of global GDP in 2070, if accounting for a 1990 start to climate mitigation, and 35% in 2035 for a 2020 start (Sanderson and O’Neill, 2020[5]). Climate change will also impact health considerably, with estimates forecasting approximately 250 000 climate-change related additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050; 38,000 due to heat exposure in elderly people, 48,000 due to diarrhoea, 60,000 due to malaria, and 95,000 due to childhood undernutrition (WHO, 2018[6]).

Climate change has far-reaching impacts and cuts across all SDGs, endangering health, essential resources, food security and biodiversity, and in turn economies and global security. SDG 13 on climate action is essential for achieving all other sustainability development goals, in particular, SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (clean energy), SDG 9 (sustainable and inclusive infrastructure), and SDG10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 11 (safe, sustainable and inclusive cities), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), and Goals 14 and 15 on protection, restoration and sustainable use of land and water resources.

Tackling climate change is also intrinsically linked to SDG 5. However, there is only one SDG 13 target specifically with a gender equality angle: raise capacity climate-change related planning and management including focusing on women (13.b).

Climate justice, in the context of the Paris Agreement, is understood as the process of integrating inclusive adaptation into socio-economic and environmental action. Most importantly, both the Paris Agreement and UN bodies such as the UNFCCC take into consideration gender equality and empowerment of women to fight climate change and acknowledge the differentiated impacts from climate change on women and girls. Efforts to integrate the gender and climate action agendas are increasingly being recognised through initiatives such as the ‘Action Coalition on Feminist action for Climate Justice’ recently inaugurated in March at the Generation Equality Forum organised by Mexico, France and UN Women.

Nevertheless – studies and data remain sparse on the differential impacts climate change and environmental hazards have on men and women – as well as the crucial role women can and do play in climate action. While various UN bodies have well-documented work of the disproportionate impact climate change has on women in developing countries, the same cannot be said for OECD countries and more gender-disaggregated data is needed across the board. It was recently announced that the COP 26 team of politicians and negotiators who will host the negotiations in Glasgow 2021 will be composed of all men (The Grantham Institute, 2020[7]). The latter is reflective of - and also perpetuates - a lack of awareness by local, national, and even global decision-makers on the gender dimension of climate change.

There is a significant body of literature on gender equality and climate change, which shows that women and men experience and respond to climate change differently. In general, women are more vulnerable due to their greater dependence on natural resources and structural inequity in their access and control of such resources (Ravera et al., 2016[8]) and their more limited mobility and income buffers. Multiple social, economic, and cultural characteristics interact with gender in influencing power inequities and explaining how and why people face and manage climate change and environmental stresses in different ways (Ravera et al., 2016[8]); (Ogra and Badola, 2015[9]).

Physiological differences between genders may also explain why climate-related hazards may affect women more. A 2019 study focusing on Spain, showed women – across all age ranges - are more susceptible to death from cardiovascular disease linked to climate change related temperature increases (Achebak, Devolder and Ballester, 2019[10]). Emissions of pollutants into the air from vehicles, buildings and industrial processes is also both a source of climate damage and harms human health. As shown in Chapter 3, air pollution resulting from emissions is a major health threat for pregnant women and is also associated with respiratory and developmental problems in their children. Other factors may also intersect with gender, such as age and ethnicity. For instance, the heatwave that hit France in 2003 claimed over 15 000 lives – with the excess mortality rate for women 75% higher than that for men (Fouillet et al., 2006[11]), due to differences in life expectancy between the two sexes.

There are gender differences stemming from the cumulative economic, social and health impacts of climate change. Some potent cases point to the need to further investigate these differences. For instance, in 2013, Austrian StartClim - a research programme dealing with climate change and its effects – looked at gender issues in the context of natural hazards, in particular flooding, and found disproportionate effects on women (StartClim, 2013[12]). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 83% of low-income single mothers displaced were unable to return to their homes when the storm displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region. (Sastry, 2009[13]); (Bryner, Garcia-Lozano and Bruch, 2017[14]). After the 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the disruption of modern water and electrical infrastructure left many households without the most basic services, a burden that fell significantly on women. While men contributed to finding and transporting water, women were found to do the arduous labour of caretaking, looking after the sick and maintaining households without water and power, including the improvisation of WASH services (OXFAM, 2018[15]). Research conducted in Brazil further shows that women are both vulnerable in the face of environmental disasters and essential to overcoming the impact of such situations and in recovery efforts (De Araujo Pinheiro, 2011[16]).

On the other hand, farmer suicide, partly due to drought or severe and unpredictable weather threatening agricultural income, is a predominately-male phenomenon (Sorensen et al., 2018[17]). Harmful stereotypes, such as maintaining a macho persona, prevent men from seeking help. Men account for 87% of farmer suicides in Australia (Bryant, 2018[18]), 96% in the United Kingdom (ONS UK, 2019[19]), and around 86% in France (Grosclaude et al., 2018[20]). In India, in 2019, a total of 10,281 farmers and agricultural labourers died by suicide in India. Government’s data shows that these suicides were mainly linked to despair over their livelihoods, with recent calls made by farmers complaining about loan sharking, the privatisation of the rural credit system, and agriculture monopolies among other issues (NCRB, 2020[21]).This is a deep-rooted crisis that has led many farmers to take their own lives by consuming a pesticide, particularly during COVID-19 (Shivji, 2021[22]).

In the developing country context, climate change disproportionately affects women and children. They are more likely to be victims of increasingly severe environmental hazards (droughts, fires and floods), accounting for more than 75% of displaced persons (IPCC, 2012[23]). Socio-economic and cultural norms tend to exacerbate the cumulative effects of climate-related events. Traditional gender roles dictate that women become the primary caretakers for those affected by disasters – including children, the injured and sick, and the elderly – substantially increasing their emotional and material workload (WHO, 2020[24]).

Nevertheless, worldwide natural disasters impact men and women disproportionately. Stemming both from physiological differences and cultural norms across societies, disasters can and have disproportionally impacted women and girls. During a major disaster, this could result in women being reluctant to seek shelter because shared communal facilities may not provide separate private spaces (UFCOP, 2016[25]).

In general, the gender equality aspects of climate change remain a largely under-researched agenda and national climate strategies often lack a gender equality perspective. Some countries have started to take action to correct this deficit. For instance, in September 2017, the Government of Finland approved its Midterm (2030) Climate Policy Plan and included Gender Impact Assessment training as a key tool for its actions, with a focus on areas such as transport planning, urban safety, consumption patterns and energy use (OECD, 2020[26]).

The Government of Chile, with the support of UN Women and the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has recently launched a study to gather evidence on gender equality and climate change in the country. The initiative will include an Atlas of Information on Gender and Climate Change and sectoral gender indicators (still under development) to identify gender gaps and climate change in certain sectors which call for the design and updating of adaptation and mitigation plans. Additionally, there are other projects underway, such as Austria’s study on “Climate and Energy Strategy 2030” (“mission2030”), which includes a gender angle (OECD, 2020[26]).

The UNDP Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Support Programme is supporting countries to improve their focus on gender equality as they plan for implementing, enhancing or revising their National Determined Contributions. In Costa Rica, the new National Policy for Equality (2018-2030) includes goals related to strengthening the climate resilience of women and their participation in risk management. The national women’s institute (INAMU) is playing an active role in climate change related policy. They have participated in the Inter-ministerial Committee on Climate Change, which is an advisory body and they have provided support to MINAE for monitoring the National Strategy on Climate Change, Moreover, INAMU has also been involved in strengthening a gender focus in the National Adaptation Policy (UNDP, 2019[27]).

In Côte d’Ivoire, the National Climate Change Programme (NCCP) has included a climate and gender unit working to develop the Gender and Climate Change Strategy. In partnership with the UNDP and the NAP Global Network, they have produced a gender analysis and recommendations for mainstreaming gender in climate action policy (MINEDD, 2019[28]).

Tackling the impact of climate change requires a bevy of innovative solutions, strategies and changes in behaviour. Targeted policy action accounting for gender, alongside socio-economic, cultural and physiological factors, can decrease negative outcomes of climate-related health impacts (Sorensen et al., 2018[17]). Understanding gender roles, discrimination and inequalities in the context of climate change and climate action supports a more informed approach to mitigation and adaptation that can galvanise women’s social agency, and the efficacy of initiatives.

Direct connections can be made between gender equality and climate action, but a gender-responsive approach also requires thinking outside the box. Project Drawdown – a consortium of companies committed to finding solutions to reduce greenhouse gases and sequestering carbon already in the atmosphere – has compiled a list of 80 solutions modelled and measured through to 2050 (Table 12.1). Educating Girls and Family Planning ranks 6 and 7 on the list, with the potential to reduce Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2-EQ) by 103 gigatonnes. These solutions fall just behind restoring and preserving tropical forests (61.23 gigatonnes) and above solar farms (36.90 gigatonnes).

Population growth in the context of unsustainable consumption patterns is one of the main causes of climate change. A comprehensive framework of sexual reproductive health and rights, including voluntary family planning solutions, access to contraception and reproductive health services, together with improved access to education, can therefore have a substantial effect on population growth, slowing the increase of the carbon footprint of humans (i.e. reduced demand for food and resources, waste and transportation) (Murtaugh and Schlax, 2009[29]). It also has the knock-on effect for improving health, poverty, and hunger outcomes by reducing pregnancy in high risk groups (the young and old), maternal mortality rates, and freeing up time for women and girls to pursue other goals (Smith et al., 2014[30]).

The funding gap for implementing voluntary family planning is estimated at USD 5.3 billion, making it a relatively low-cost solution and one that pales in comparison to the cost of inaction and other, more costly solutions (Bixby Center, 2017[31]). In 2017, OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) figures show that 8% - or USD 3.31 billion - of Official Development Assistance (ODA) was directed towards population and reproductive health (OECD, 2017[32]). ODA has nevertheless been incorporating gender equality and women’s empowerment in developing countries with bilateral aid steadily increasing and reaching an average of USD 48.7 billion per year in 2017-18, corresponding to 42% of aid (GENDERNET, 2020[33]). Additionally, the DAC gender equality policy marker monitors and accounts for all bilateral aid in support of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments on gender equality, further supporting gender oriented ODA (UNDP, 2016[34]). Climate aid that targets gender equality has increased rapidly in recent years from USD 4.4 billion in 2010 to USD 8 billion in 2014. Different programmes include the Solar Sister programme, through which donors have supported women across rural Africa to sell solar lamps that provide safe, clean energy and employment for women, or the TransMilenio, a project that establishes a low-emission rapid bus transit system in Bogotá, Colombia (OECD, 2016[35]).

Arriving at these seemingly unrelated, but sensible solutions requires adopting wide visibility of the synergies and trade-offs between well-being outcomes and climate action. The OECD Climate Change Mitigation through a Well-Being Lens initiative advocates for this approach where policies and decisions are taken with multiple well-being objectives in mind, rather than focusing on singular or a narrow range of objectives (OECD, 2019[36]). The Well-being Lens provides for a two-way alignment: “action in non-climate policy is supportive of and does not undermine the pursuit of climate change mitigation goals,” while “climate action meets other important societal goals” without negatively impacting key aspects of well-being.

Men and women express different preferences, perceptions and beliefs when it comes to acting in environmentally friendly ways. While consumer behaviour towards environmental sustainability has been discussed in Chapter 11, here the focus is mostly on gender differences in people’s preferences and perceptions towards climate change.

For instance, substantially reducing meat consumption, particularly red meat, can bring about massive reductions in GHG emissions. While more people are turning to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, men making this change trail behind women. An Ipsos MORI survey in the United Kingdom found that women are significantly more likely to be vegetarian than men (IPSOS, 2018[37]). Strong associations exist between meat and masculinity across regions and culture, as does an affinity for fast, fuel-guzzling cars (Love and Sulikowski, 2018[38]).A study of men and women’s energy consumption in Germany, Greece, Norway and Sweden found that men eat more meat, use cars more frequently and drive longer distances than women (Räty and Kanyama, 2010[39]). Results concluded that “men consumed 70-80% more energy on transport than women in Germany and Norway, 100% more in Sweden and 350% more in Greece” and single male households consumed 6-38% more total energy that single female households (Räty and Kanyama, 2010[39]). A study conducted by France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economics (INSEE) found that, based on daily activity, men produce 7 kilograms more of CO2 emissions per day (INSEE, 2020[40]). An OECD study also found that women are more likely to recycle, minimise wastage and buy organic food and eco-labelled products (OECD, 2008[41]).

Focusing on environmental objectives to change behaviour and steer men and women toward more environmentally-friendly choices will not be enough. These efforts must be broadly underpinned by gender equality measures to breakdown harmful gender stereotypes/roles and discriminatory social institutions, so that men and women feel more comfortable embracing more green lifestyles.

Women and girls can be proactive and experienced agents with expertise in adaptation and mitigation in the face of climate change (Sinharoy and Caruso, 2019[42]); (Yadav, Han and Rho, 2016[43]). As discussed in Chapter 5, women and girls are increasingly engaged in climate change action. Women are raising their own voice in the debate on climate change adaptation, not only because they experience the vulnerabilities depicted by climate change at a greater scale (due to the gender divide), but also because they have a different sense of what constitutes a bigger climate risk than men, based on their role at the household and the local community (UN, 2020[44]); (Terry, 2009[45]).

Women have been advocating for climate justice since the COP 13 in Bali, (GenderCC Network, 2007[46]) and they are continuing to do so, raising awareness and campaigning for a gender-just transition. Throughout the world, there are examples of women’s groups taking climate action in their hands (Chapter 4). In South Asia for instance, during the 1970s, the Chipko movement mobilised popular opposition to large-scale commercial forestry in the Indian Himalaya (Uttarakhand). This movement opposed commercial loggers and certain agricultural practices and local ecology (Price, 2018[47]). In 1997 in the Headwaters Forest of Northern California, the young Julia Butterfly Hill made history when she climbed up and lived for 738 days on the branches of a tree to protest tree-felling in the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests. Today’s climate justice activism amongst the youth is also represented by a female face, Greta Thunberg.

Indigenous women, in particular, have become key agents in defending nature and taking climate action. They have, however, also become the main targets of environmental-related violence. In 2017, roughly half of all female activists were murdered for defending community land and environmental rights (Ervin, 2018[48]).  Despite the numerous challenges facing women environmental defenders, they continue to demonstrate leadership, resiliency, and flexibility in their efforts to support their communities and be at the forefront of driving change, innovation, and progress. Providing access to indigenous women to decision-making spaces remains key for climate action. Examples include Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, who was not only selected as the speaker representing civil society in COP 21 but has also pioneered many climate action projects, including a 3D mapping project in Chad that has contributed in the protection of natural resources (McCarthy, 2020[49])

There is a lack on women’s representation in public and private sector decision-making, especially in sectors that have key impacts on climate change (finance, energy and transport) (UNDP, 2016[34]) However in climate-related grassroots movements and environment-related UN processes such as the UNFCCC women’s role is increasing, and gender parity is almost reached (Chapter 2).

Women in leadership positions tend to put a greater focus on climate change and environmental sustainability. A study on gender equality and state-level environmentalism found that, across 130 countries, women in government positions were more likely to sign on to international treaties to reduce global warming than men (Norgaard and York, 2005[50]). Promoting the participation of diverse women in leadership positions, as well as climate science, can also inspire young women to participate (Dennehy and Dasgupta, 2017[51]).

Hence, considering women as unique agents in climate action is an imperative that should translate into all areas of climate change action by mainstreaming gender in mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology and capacity development. Applying tools such as Gender Impact Assessment, Gender Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (GVA) and Gender-Responsive Budgeting on climate action projects and policy can all contribute to correcting gender imbalances in relation to climate change (UNDP, 2015[52]). For instance, while climate change technologies are not gender-neutral they are sometimes introduced without a gender assessment, accentuating women’s and reinforcing gender roles. The operational arm of the UNFCCC Technology Mechanism, the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), acknowledges these challenges and integrates a gender analysis in their Technology Needs Assessment and Feasibility Studies, accounting in this way for social and financial benefits to women derived from new climate technologies.

There are a number of key actions to better address the impact of climate change on women and allow their empowerment to take climate action:

  • Providing equal rights to women and ending all forms of discrimination can provide a massive boost to the fight against climate change and strengthen the planet’s resilience and sustainability.

  • There is also a need to step up evidence gathering and indicators on the impact of climate change on women, especially those in more vulnerable situations, and to consider remedial policy actions. Coordinating with the private sector and civil society that produce quantitative and qualitative work in the field can contribute to this objective.

  • More evidence is needed to understand the ways and sectors in which women are already having a positive effect on climate action in order to further support their efforts.

  • The integration of gender and climate change considerations in policy decisions is essential, especially in developing countries with large rural populations and high dependence on agriculture. Domestic and international efforts to advance climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries should focus more on women-led projects at the local and community level. In particular, there is a need to continue to integrate a joint gender and environmental dimension into development co-operation efforts, and specifically into ODA.

  • There is a need to collect better sex-disaggregated data on climate change impacts and climate policy interventions, and to make use of ‘Gender Impact Assessments‘ (GIA). Understanding the current state of adaptation and possible future impacts of climate change requires further work.

  • Applying gender budgeting in the field of climate policy can assist governments to monitor the allocation of resources and analyse the gender-differentiated impact.

  • It is also necessary to review decision-making processes and support women's leadership in climate-sensitive policies.


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