Center for American Progress

Climate Solutions Empower Women and Help the Planet

Climate Solutions Empower Women and Help the Planet

A Sustainable World Will Advance the Rights and Welfare of Women

Rebecca Lefton underscores the importance of including women in climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.

Indian women carry firewood on their heads as they arrive at a train station in Allahabad, India, on December 19, 2011. (AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Indian women carry firewood on their heads as they arrive at a train station in Allahabad, India, on December 19, 2011. (AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

International Women’s Day celebrates the vital roles of women in society and the global progress made toward gender parity. Thus far development programs in health and education have directly addressed and improved the particularly vulnerable plight of women. But detrimental disparities between women and men remain everywhere. Gender norms contribute to enduring disparities between women and men. These beliefs about the roles of women and men shape the lives of women and men everywhere by defining what is expected and valued for each sex. Yet these roles are not static. There has been a shift toward greater gender balance that has often coincided with growing economies and a growing recognition that women’s empowerment is necessary for achieving prosperity, stability, and global health.

One area largely overlooked is the disproportionate impact of climate change on women. Also overlooked, however, are the opportunities for empowering women that stem from tackling global warming. Not only will unabated climate change threaten the livelihood of women more than men, but programs to develop sustainable energy will have immediate positive opportunities in enhancing and promoting the welfare of women around the world.

Investing in solutions that help women and tackle climate change is a win-win that will change the lives of people on the planet today and make the world a safer and more equitable place for future inhabitants. Climate change presents an opportunity for economic transition to a low-carbon sustainable economy that works for all people. Yet the transition to a sustainable economy must be inclusive of half the population if it is to succeed. We can meet the global challenges of gender inequality and climate change simultaneously.

This piece looks at the climate issues facing women and the solutions that will empower them and help mitigate these effects. The upshot is that women can play a major role in responding to climate change and building a sustainable economy.

Women worldwide will be hit especially hard by climate change

Climate change threatens to destabilize livelihoods and severely damage economies, and populations will experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately by region, wealth, and gender, as there are variances in geographical impacts of global warming and in the ability to adapt. The developing world will be the hardest hit, both in terms of the degree of projected global warming impacts and in the capacity of nations to prepare and respond.

Women will bear the burden of these changes because they are the bulk of the world’s poor and have fewer resources for coping with global warming and the ensuing related disasters already occurring with more frequency and intensity. The mortality rates for women in low- and middle-income countries continue to be higher than men, and climate change will worsen mortality expectancies for women, who are more likely to die in natural disasters and, indirectly, because it is women and girls who sacrifice food to eat when it is scarce.

Their livelihoods are also more directly threatened as they make up the majority of the world’s small farmers.

Win-win solutions for the climate and gender equality

Women’s agency is critical in transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices that can manage the sector’s large greenhouse gas contributions and ensure food security. These practices enhance soil quality, minimize the use of water and pesticides, protect habitats, prevent erosion and degradation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that only between 10 and 20 percent of women in developing countries have land rights and women hold fewer assets and face more difficulty attaining credit. Only 10 percent of total aid for agriculture, forestry, and fishing goes to women. If women had the same access to resources farm yields could increase by 20 percent to 30 percent, which would feed 100 to 150 million people that would otherwise go hungry.

Meanwhile, unleashing renewable energy and providing universal energy access is necessary to prevent catastrophic impacts of global warming and for inclusive economic development. One in five people lacks access to modern, reliable electricity, and 3 billion people still rely on traditional cook stoves, which emit black carbon pollution that is dangerous for human health and a major contributor to global warming.

A clean energy approach will provide alternatives to searching for firewood or biomass for cooking and cleaning without putting women in harm’s way. Women and girls—who are the first to be kept out of school to gather firewood, water, and biomass—will be able to spend more time on education and working in the formal sector with access to dependable and clean electricity. And we can prevent 2 million deaths annually—primarily women and children—by replacing dirty cook stoves with clean cook stoves.

The inclusion of women in sustainable natural-resource management, clean energy access and infrastructure development, and the design and formulation of policy will ensure that approaches to climate resiliency are successful.

Then there are the economic benefits. In all parts of the world the economics of climate change demand immediate remediation. Unabated, climate change has a significant negative impact on the world’s economy. But sustainable energy and other green programs will have the converse effect—growing the economy. This can provide new employment opportunities for women and men with the opportunity to improve gender parity in education and the workplace.

For instance, HSBC projects a $2.2 trillion annual clean energy technology market to meet the global demand for clean technologies, and the gains will be even greater if barriers that prevent the full participation of women are eliminated. Women already represent 40 percent of the global workforce but hold only 1 percent of the world’s wealth. Removing obstacles blocking the full participation of women in the workforce could increase labor productivity as much as 25 percent in some countries.

The bottom line: Sustainable growth is an opportunity to empower women and grow the economy for all people. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “A rising tide of women in an economy raises the fortunes of families and nations.”

Women’s vital role in battling climate change has long been recognized. Principles recognizing the inextricable link between women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability have been called for by international bodies for decades. The 1992 United Nations Conference Rio Declaration on Environment and Development stated:

Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Further, the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing Declaration underscored that economic development and social development that empowers women and environmental protection are “interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development.”

The integration of gender issues and the welfare of women with climate change issues increased as demonstrated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In Durban, South Africa during climate talks this past December gender-sensitive language was reflected in the final text, including references in the Green Climate Fund to ensure gender balance on the board of the fund and that finance for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries be gender sensitive.

But much work remains to make sure women are not left on the sidelines.

Moving forward

It is necessary to continue elevating gender equality in international conversations about climate change and sustainable development and ensure that these conversations do not get lost in implementation. Such discussions and on-the-ground actions must include the private sector and civil society in addition to governments at the international, national, and local levels.

Integrating women into solutions will diminish disparities in income, productivity, and social outcomes. The tools for building climate resilience are the same tools that can uplift women. By ensuring that women have equal access to resources and land rights and that there is representative participation in land governance and decision-making, we can improve food security and economic growth, for example.

Moreover, as significant public and private financial resources are mobilized for adaptation and mitigation, it is essential that gender is incorporated into financial flows in ways that empower women—from project selection, design, and implementation. Gender must be a consideration throughout mitigation and adaptation plans.

Gender equality is a goal in its own right. Significant gains can be achieved merely as a consequence of a sustainable environment that lifts the burdens from women in agricultural and rural societies and provides new and exciting opportunities in education and the workplace.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Rebecca Lefton

Senior Policy Analyst