Future of the Environment

How to involve women in climate change mitigation

Megan Rowling
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Future of the Environment

In three remote southern villages of Tanzania, six local women who were trained at the Barefoot College in India to install and maintain solar energy panels brought light and power to at least 200 households within a few months of returning home.

Thanks to their new skills, the women also increased their voice and independence, making up almost half of village energy committees, according to UN Women, which partnered on the initiative.

The success of the Barefoot College model led it to announce in September an $11 million commitment to launch six regional centres in Africa, in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Senegal, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zanzibar. They will train 560 illiterate rural women on how to solar electrify their villages.

This is the kind of activity people often give as an example of women’s involvement in climate change mitigation – meaning efforts to curb planet-warming emissions – in developing countries. Another niche where women play a big role is in the use of cleaner, energy-efficient cooking stoves.

When Gambia, for example, came to put together its national mitigation action plan, under the U.N. climate change convention, it consulted women on how to reduce firewood for cooking, environment minister Pa Ousman Jarju told an event on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Lima last week.

Yet positive cases like these are rare. Women’s involvement in climate change mitigation – an arena that has focused on energy technology, greener transport, slowing deforestation, carbon trading and other large-scale solutions – remains minor, gender experts said in Peru.

“With the big fixes – often because of the power structures we live in – women are not working in those spheres…most of the decision makers are men,” said Eleanor Blomstrom, programme director for the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in New York. Things are “very slow” to change, she added.

In a WEDO analysis of decisions taken by the U.N. climate negotiations, only three on mitigation address gender, compared with 10 on adaptation, where awareness has risen of how women suffer disproportionately from the effects of more extreme weather and rising seas.

Different Needs

Ana Rojas, a consultant with the Global Gender and Climate Alliance in Costa Rica, urged a shift in perspective. The energy sector, for example, prioritises boosting supply, rather than exploring how best to respond to demand from men and women – an approach that would result in more tailored solutions, she explained.

In addition, there is a need to identify those who have fallen out of the value chain, as well as which skills already exist and which must be provided “so that we don’t leave women behind” when moving economies onto a low-carbon track, she said.

Forest protection efforts also often fail to take women’s needs into account, said Anne Larson, principal scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

When she and her team surveyed early schemes to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in around 70 villages across Asia, Africa and Latin America, they found that women were less informed about the projects being discussed in communities, and took fewer decisions on them than men.

Larson called for gender-sensitive analyses of the impacts of forest protection programmes, because “any time you’re talking about changing behaviour of land management or forest use on the ground, you’re affecting not just men, but also women”.

Backing Entrepreneurs

So what else would it take to make mitigation more gender-friendly? WEDO’s Blomstrom recommended, for example, that energy and other technologies should be designed to be less labour-intensive and require less upper body strength to operate.

Money could play a transformative role too – and the signs are improving. The fledgling Green Climate Fund, which has just garnered over $10 billion in initial donor pledges, has promised to take a gender-sensitive approach and will develop mechanisms to promote the participation of women, among other groups.

Liane Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation North America, said that for climate finance to respond to gender concerns, it is important to recognise how men and women are affected differently by climate change and tailor funding to meet those varying needs.

Women around the world, particularly in developing countries, are already taking mitigation actions, although these are often small-scale and community-focused, she said.

International climate finance could support them, for example, by subsidising the creation of credit lines for women entrepreneurs, who often don’t get access to financial services because of cultural biases, she added.

Priscilla Achapka, coordinator of the Women Environmental Programme in Nigeria, argued that women have “the right to be active participants in the development of climate-change responsive technologies that are adapted, affordable, accessible and available”. In addition, they should be able to enjoy “the economic opportunities and benefits that may arise from a just and safe energy transition”.

Has the time finally come for women to start breaking into the man’s world of mitigation?

There may be growing support for this view, but the evidence so far suggests it’ll be pretty tough to achieve in practice.

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Megan Rowling covers aid and climate change issues, with a focus on social, economic and environmental justice for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: A woman is silhouetted next to a solar panel display by solar module supplier Upsolar at the fourth International Photovoltaic Power Generation (PV) Expo in Tokyo March 2, 2011. REUTERS.

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Future of the EnvironmentGender Inequality
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