Climate leadership is in urgent need of more women
The observation by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and environmental trailblazer Wangari Maathai that — “the higher you go, the fewer women there are” — reflects a reality familiar to all women who have aspired to leadership positions, and it has gained a new meaning for me as the climate crisis has intensified.
Though it is already clear that women and girls will face higher risks and greater burdens because of climate change, they remain significantly underrepresented in climate and environmental negotiations.
In 2019, the UN’s Gender Composition Report noted that the number of women represented in UN Framework Convention on Climate Change bodies was not in line with efforts to create gender balance. In response, member states adopted a gender action plan at that year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP25. The plan recognized that “full, meaningful and equal participation and leadership of women in all aspects of the UN framework process and in national- and local-level climate policy and action is vital for achieving long-term climate goals.”
And yet, by the time COP26 rolled around two years later, little had changed. The UK’s COP26 presidency was predominantly male-led, and only 11 of the 74 African national representatives were women.
Moreover, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity appears to be exhibiting a similar tendency, with male negotiators outnumbering female negotiators by about 60.
The failure to ensure equal representation and women’s participation in efforts to tackle climate change and the loss of biodiversity is short-sighted, at best, and potentially reckless. The problem is also increasingly urgent.
Last month, delegates from around the world gathered in Geneva for one of the final rounds of negotiations to conclude the development of the new UN Global Biodiversity Framework. These gatherings, which aim to accelerate action to halt further species loss and tackle climate change, will shape the global response to both crises for years to come.
The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrate the scale of these crises. The IPCC has documented unequivocally the fact that human activities are warming our planet’s surface, leading to rapidly changing weather systems, biodiversity loss, and increased resource insecurity.
By 2100, 50 percent of Africa’s bird and mammal species could disappear. We are potentially entering a sixth mass extinction and if the problem is left unchecked, our sources of food, water and medicine will increasingly be at risk.
If we do not bring more women to the table, a climate disaster is almost certainly guaranteed.
Women comprise the majority of the world’s poor and are disproportionately affected by these crises. In the developing world, they are overwhelmingly responsible for sourcing food and water for their families and they often take the lead in fuel collection and household management. Women also make up nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers, producing 70 percent of Africa’s food.
As such, women and girls are often the first to experience the harsh realities of climate change. But owing to pervasive inequalities that limit their access to education and healthcare, unequal employment rates, and low rates of representation in public office, they are less likely than men to be able to participate in decision-making processes.
If the past two years have shown us anything, it is that women’s leadership is critical during tumultuous times. According to a recent study of 194 countries, the immediate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were systematically better in countries with female leaders. Similarly, research has found that “female representation leads countries to adopt more stringent climate-change policies,” and that a high degree of female representation in parliament makes it more likely that a country will ratify international environmental treaties.
Women bring not only ambition but also different perspectives and experiences to the table. As a result, their contributions ultimately lead to more nuanced and inclusive environmental policies.
In Africa, the importance of women’s leadership in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss is evident to any observer. In Nigeria, Minister of State for Environment Sharon Ikeazor has advocated for the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, and pushed for fossil-fuel subsidies to be replaced with investments in sustainable, low-carbon development.
In Rwanda, Minister of Environment Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya has won praise for her inclusive rainforest conservation efforts. In Chad, environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim continues to champion the cause of Africa’s local communities and indigenous peoples at the highest levels of the UN. And in Freetown, Sierra Leone, we are planting 1 million trees over three rainy seasons to promote climate resilience and green job creation.
All of these women, including me, have championed 30x30, the global campaign to protect 30 percent of the world’s surface by 2030. Meeting this objective would prevent further destruction of ecosystems, and the effort could lead to the first-ever global agreement to halt the destruction of nature.
Many more women are tackling biodiversity loss and climate change, including indigenous women who are using their unique knowledge of the land to farm more sustainably and protect fragile ecosystems, and aspiring politicians who are running on integrated policy platforms linking reproductive health, education and environmental protection. Those who are already in leadership positions must ensure that these women are given a chance to contribute.
Much has changed since 2004, when Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. Emissions have surged and extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity. But much has also remained the same: Women continue to be excluded from leadership positions and the world continues to pay the price for it.
As the final negotiations for the new Global Biodiversity Framework continue, and as we approach this year’s UN Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD COP15, in Kunming, China, we have a duty to address these failures. If we do not bring more women to the table, a climate disaster is almost certainly guaranteed.
- Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Copyright: Project Syndicate