Climate leadership needs more women – Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

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Women are most at risk from environmental crises and have been shown to perform better in environmental policy.

A Namibian woman returns with water to her village, which does not have its own supply (CherylRamalho/shutterstock.com)

“The higher you go; fewer women. This observation, from Nobel Peace Prize laureate and environmental pioneer Wangari Maathai, reflects a reality familiar to all women who have aspired to leadership positions, and it has taken on new meaning for me as the climate crisis has intensified. Although it is already clear that women and girls will face higher risks and greater burdens due to climate change, they remain grossly underrepresented in climate and environment negotiations.

In 2019, the United Nations Gender Composition Report noted that the number of women represented in the bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was not in line with efforts to create a gender balance. sexes. In response, member states adopted a gender action plan at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in 2019. The plan recognized that “full, meaningful and equality of women in all aspects of the UNFCCC process and in national processes and climate policy and action at the local level are essential to achieve long-term climate goals”.

And yet, by the time COP26 arrived two years later, little had changed. The UK COP26 presidency was overwhelmingly led by men and only 11 of the 74 African national representatives were women. Additionally, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity appears to show a similar pattern, with male negotiators outnumbering female negotiators by around 60.

Myopic at best

The failure to ensure equal representation and participation of women in efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss is short-sighted and potentially reckless at best. 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 UN’s new global biodiversity framework. With the aim of accelerating action to stop species loss and fight climate change, these gatherings will shape the global response to the two crises for years to come.

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The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have shown the magnitude of these crises. The IPCC has unequivocally documented that human activities are warming the surface of our planet, leading to rapid changes in weather systems, loss of biodiversity and increased resource insecurity. By 2100, 50% of Africa’s bird and mammal species could disappear. We are potentially entering a sixth mass extinction and, if left unchecked, our sources of food, water and medicine will come under increasing threat.

Women constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are disproportionately affected by these crises. In the developing world, women are largely responsible for providing food and water for their families, and they often take responsibility for fuel collection and household management. Women also make up nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers, producing 70% of Africa’s food.

Widespread inequalities

Thus, women and girls are often the first to experience the harsh realities of climate change. But, due to widespread inequalities that limit their access to education and health care, unequal employment rates and low rates of representation in the civil service, they are less likely than men to be able to participate in decision-making process.

If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that women’s leadership is essential in these tumultuous times. According to a study of 194 countries, immediate responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have been consistently better in countries with female leaders. Similarly, the research found that “women’s representation leads countries to adopt tougher climate change policies” and that a high degree of women’s representation in parliament increases the likelihood of a country ratifying treaties. international environment.


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Women not only bring ambition, but also different perspectives and experiences. As a result, their contributions ultimately lead to more nuanced and inclusive environmental policies.

female leadership

In Africa, the importance of women’s leadership in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss is obvious. In Nigeria, Minister of State for Environment Sharon Ikeazor advocated for the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People and pushed for fossil fuel subsidies to be replaced with investments in low-carbon, sustainable development. carbon. In Rwanda, Environment Minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya has received praise for her inclusive rainforest conservation efforts. In Chad, environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim continues to advocate for local communities and indigenous peoples of Africa at the highest level of the UN. And here in Freetown, we’re planting one million trees over three rainy seasons to promote climate resilience and green job creation.

All of these women, myself included, championed “30×30”, the global campaign to protect 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030. Achieving this goal would prevent further destruction of the ecosystem and this effort could lead to the first-ever global agreement. stop the destruction of nature.

Many more women are fighting against biodiversity loss and climate change, including indigenous women who use their unique knowledge of the land to farm more sustainably and protect fragile ecosystems, and aspiring female politicians operating on integrated political platforms linking reproductive health, education and environmental protection. Those already in leadership positions need to ensure that these women have the opportunity to contribute.

Pay the price

Much has changed since 2004, when Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. Emissions have increased and extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity. But many things have also remained the same: women continue to be excluded from leadership positions and the world continues to pay the price.

As the final negotiations for the new global biodiversity framework continue and we approach this year’s UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in Kunming, China, we have a duty to address these chess. If we don’t bring more women to the table, climate catastrophe is almost certainly guaranteed.

Reprint prohibited – copyright Project Syndicate 2022, “Climate leadership needs more women”

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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