Why gender equality is crucial to a climate-safe future

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities, and Silvia Marcon, Head of Inclusive Climate Action Global Leadership at C40 Cities

Recent studies have shown not only that higher levels of gender equality are linked with greater action on climate, but that women’s leadership can drive progress on climate policies. As evidence increases that women are disproportionately affected by the environmental crisis, cities can be key players in addressing gender and climate challenges together.

Women have always been at the forefront of climate action. Key architects of the Paris Agreement included the French economist Laurence Tubiana and the Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is now headed by the Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa, while the recently appointed head of the World Trade Organization, Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is a longtime climate advocate. In the US Congress, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the chief visionaries behind the Green New Deal, while Greta Thunberg, Jamie Mangolin, Varshini Prakash, Vanessa Nakate, Disha Ravi and Luisa Neubauer are all driving forces in the youth activist movement.

But in the bigger picture, women remain underrepresented at the decision making level — in 2015, just 12% of federal ministries were headed by women. This is true despite clear evidence that women’s leadership is central to effective climate action. Studies have found that greater female representation in national parliaments leads to lower CO2 emissions, while in the private sector, analysis reveals that companies with greater gender diversity in their boardrooms show better performance in addressing the climate crisis. At the same time, research is increasingly finding that women and girls are disproportionately at risk from the impacts of climate breakdown. Studies have found, for example, that women and girls are more affected by climate driven-food insecurity than men in many parts of the world, while gender-based violence increases following disasters. One study found that women were more likely to die in heat waves in nine European cities, including London, Paris and Rome. In September, the UN warned that women and poor communities were the worst affected by the declining capacity of ecosystems to provide the essential services on which societies depend.

Of course, gender is one factor among many that leave some people more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis than others. Geographic location, race, socio-economic background, migrant status and age all play a role. This last year has also shown how crises can converge, as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been unequally shared — the health crisis has left racial minorities, low income groups and the elderly among the worst affected. In most countries, women and girls have been significantly impacted due to their over-representation in essential services like education, health, care, and domestic work, while the shutdown of childcare facilities has impacted women’s participation in the labour market. It is essential, therefore, that green recovery plans are intersectional and inclusive of all people.

For cities, the recovery from the pandemic offers a window of opportunity to rethink urban planning and cut emissions while making city life more equitable, which is why C40 mayors have released their Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery outlining the steps that cities can take to achieve that.

One such opportunity is the shift towards more localised planning that has been accelerated by the health crisis. Prior to the pandemic, public transport systems tended to prioritise routes that bring commuters from the city suburbs to the centre and have been statistically more often used by men, despite evidence that the majority of journeys on public transport are made by women. Transport planning that is centred on the needs of white collar workers can exclude those who need to make journeys in outer areas, such as domestic workers, school students, and journeys for caregiving, social and leisure purposes.

Cities across the world, like Paris, Milan, Melbourne and Portland, are increasingly aligning their planning with the ’15 minute city’ or ‘complete neighbourhoods’ concept, which ensures that residents can access all their essential needs within a 15 minute bike ride, reducing emissions from transport and improving equity for women and other groups who tend to make journeys outside the central business district. Some cities have carried out studies to help drive gender-inclusive climate action, such as Sydney, which carried out a study to investigate walking and cycling trips undertaken by women, and Barcelona, which gathered gender-disaggregated data to better understand women’s mobility behaviour and needs. As cities progress with their green recovery plans, it is essential that the gendered implications are taken into consideration.

In 2017, C40’s Women4Climate Initiative was developed under the leadership of then C40 Chair Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to drive gender-response climate action and inspire the next generation of women climate leaders around the world through its global mentorship programme. Today, 16 global cities are involved in the programme, which matches mayors, city officials and leaders from other sectors with emerging climate leaders. Women such as Rachel Wang, who set up a free bike delivery service supplying food and essentials to community groups in her home city of Toronto, are one of the many mentees making bold climate action happen on the ground.

It was the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that women belong in all places where decisions are made. All too often, this has not been the case. As cities reinvent themselves following the pandemic, they can, and are, building cities that meet the needs of all people.