by Jess McDonald

The tension in the air was palpable. The seats in front of me quickly filled up as the clock ticked down. The carefully placed aisles running through the plenary hall were full of delegates running to their seats. A few minutes later, the president of the United Nations climate conference addressed the crowd, held a green gavel high in the air, and slammed it against the front table – signaling the start to a new era on climate action.

I was one of thousands of observers at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in December 2015. I attended the conference as part of my climate and energy graduate studies at Duke University. The outcome of the conference, the Paris Agreement, is a historic agreement for climate action that will enter into force once at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions put forth their instruments of ratification. On October 4, the EU agreed to ratify the climate agreement. With the EU’s ratification, both thresholds for the agreement to enter into force have been passed- a development that comes as a huge surprise to many veterans in the international climate sphere.

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Jess McDonald and fellow students at COP21

The agreement text encompasses numerous goals tied to climate change including cutting emissions, adapting to climate impacts like heat waves and floods, encouraging technology transfer between countries, creating transparency mechanisms, and the list goes on.

It also touches the heart of the climate change issue: the people already affected by a changing climate and to those who will inherit the new climate we’re creating. Within the first two pages, the agreement reads:

“Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity…”

This new era of climate action includes an element of climate change not often brought to the forefront: gender equality.

As a part of the agreement, countries submitted national climate action plans. In January 2016, 37.5 percent of the nearly 190 submitted climate plans explicitly mention “gender” and/or “women.” This could be a turning point for the integration and mainstreaming of gender considerations into national priority setting. The inclusion of gender in policy is absolutely essential because the effects of climate change are felt by women in a manner disproportionate to men.

Firstly, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because they compose the majority of the world’s poor. Secondly, they are more dependent on the natural resources that will be impacted by increased floods and more frequent droughts. For instance, women farmers account for 45 to 80 percent of all food production in developing countries. With climate change, their traditional food sources are going to become more unpredictable and thus, these women farmers will face the consequences. Thirdly, women are often excluded from decision-making processes, limiting their ability to affect institutional change. This is not an exhaustive list of the numerous challenges women are and will face with regards to the challenges of climate change.

Credit: Morgana Wingard/USAID

Credit: Morgana Wingard/USAID

Women are also agents of change for climate mitigation and adaptation. By leading on-the-ground climate solutions, women can also contribute to the economic growth of their communities and raise their standards of living. Thus, women’s empowerment is also linked to climate change actions.

Several international initiatives are elevating the issue of women’s participation in climate solutions, including in the clean energy revolution. For example, 23 governments launched the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) initiative in 2010 under the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) to increase women’s involvement in the clean energy sector. The UNFCCC also highlights the key role of gender equality in climate mitigation and adaptation through the annual Momentum for Change: Women for Results awards, first started in 2012.

Some countries and regions have already started integrating gender equality into national climate policies. For example, the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) developed a draft policy for Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access. The policy, which should be adopted in the near future, sets numerous goals with regards to increasing education on energy and gender and expanding women’s participation in energy-related technical fields and decision-making positions. For example, the policy sets a target that 100 percent of energy policies will be gender-sensitive by 2030.

I am hopeful that other countries will follow ECOWAS’s lead. Women around the globe are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, but women also have the opportunity to create resilient, inclusive economies and ecosystems. Observing the COP21 conference last year instilled in me a sense of hope for more ambitious future climate action. On November 4th, the Paris Agreement will enter into force, and this opportunity for more gender sensitive policies must be a part of the conversation.

Jess McDonaldAbout the Author: Jess McDonald is a 2016 Graduate Public Service Scholar and recently interned with the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of International Climate and Clean Energy. Jess recently acquired her Masters of Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in May 2016. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, where she graduated summa cum laude.

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