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Gender and climate change

Debunking Climate Policy Myths

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Written by an association of women with backgrounds in the fields of architecture, urban planning, and sociology, a guide allowing women to participate to urban transformation in an active way

In recent years people, activists, mouvements and even institutions are beginning to connect to one another, and to come together to demand political changes. And changing from the slogan Tina (There is No Alternative), to Tata (There are Thousands of Alternatives).

First published: 11-15-2011


Let us look at some features of climate policies through a gender lense, and demonstrate that some assumptions underlying these policies are rather myth than reality:

One important assumption is that measuring the amount of greenhouse gases generated within the territory of a nation is the proper way to determine the nation’s share of responsibility for climate change, and thus its duty to do something about it. It is certainly the easiest way of attributing emissions, and it is meaningful, but only to a certain degree: It does not take into account the consumption of goods and commodities that are imported from other countries. Thus, for instance, the shift of energy intensive industries from developed to some developing countries with emerging economies leads to an apparent reduction of developed nations’ emissions, although they may actually consume a bulk of the products. In addition, analysis indicates that the carbon footprint of expenditures is lower in high-income countries than in poor countries, due to differences in industry’s energy efficiency.

In contrast to this methodology stipulated for national reports under the UNFCCC, the carbon footprint of nations can be calculated[4] assessing the total emissions of products consumed in a country including the supply chain. If these carbon footprints are attributed to nations, there is a slightly different ranking in terms of their respective responsibilities for emissions. Analysing the carbon footprint of nations shows clearly that the bulk of emissions are related to household consumption.

What does this have to do with gender? From a number of surveys, we know that in terms of climate policy, women tend to put more emphasis on changing consumption patterns when thinking about appropriate measures for mitigating climate change[5]. More than men do they believe that the main solutions for the climate problem will be changes in lifestyle and behaviour, rather than changes in supply side technologies. Hence we believe that if more women were involved in climate policy-making, there would be more focus on changing consumption, reducing energy use, downsizing vehicles, and revising other behaviours related to high emissions.

Beyond technologies

Another widespread myth is the notion that technologies must constitute the main means to combat climate change. However, while technologies such as renewable energies and clean cars play an important role, they can only ever be part of the solution. Cutting GHG emission as heavily as it is requires a transition to low- and zero carbon lifestyles, structures and systems. This includes behavioural changes towards sufficiency, and structural changes, including infrastructure, services, and governance.

For instance, spatial and urban planning and design are crucial areas of working towards energy efficient buildings and living environments, and to minimising the demand for transport. In addition, planning for, investing in, and maintaining infrastructure and services in order to offer public transport, efficient ways of heating and cooling buildings, and options for recycling and reuse of products are required. Policies at international and national levels are not sufficient to achieve deep cuts of greenhouse gas emissions. Local and regional authorities, and private entities and consumers also have to play significant roles. Multi-level approaches will, in addition, open up chances to improve the involvement of women in climate policy-making, as women’s access to participatory processes and decision-making positions tends to be better at the local level. [6]

Carbon markets

Another myth of climate policy revolves around offsetting emissions by means of the carbon market. The underlying assumption is that it is irrelevant in which location on the planet GHG emission cuts actually take place, as the only relevant factor is the overall GHG concentration in the global atmosphere. Therefore, the objective of the market based mechanisms is to exploit the most cost effective potentials for GHG emission reduction in terms of investments per avoided ton of emissions.

However, again, offsetting is not a valid option to achieve the profound and longer-term changes we need. For the atmosphere, it is indeed not important where we cut emissions. But for societies and their future development it is essential where these actions are taken, at both macro and micro scales. If industrialised countries continue with business as usual, only introducing marginal structural changes, they will never achieve sustainable lifestyles and per capita emissions. Yet some day – the earlier, the better! – per capita emissions need to be brought to a sustainable level (and even below, if historical responsibilities are taken into consideration).

The structural, systemic changes mentioned above will only come about in due time if we initiate them now, as, for example, reshaping existing urban structures to facilitate low-carbon lifestyles  will take considerable amounts of time. However, such efforts are not rewarded by the carbon market, because it is hard to quantify their impacts in terms of emissions reductions, or these reductions will only occur in the future. Because they do not receive carbon credits, such activities are often neglected, although they would not only reduce carbon emissions in the long run, but would also deliver co-benefits in terms of cleaner air, improved health of citizens, reduced accidents and noise.

Moreover, the lack of environmental integrity of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which has been substantiated by a number of studies is not only due to institutional and procedural shortcomings that can be overcome through improvements in rules and provisions. It is rather an inherent problem of the CDM: If activities to cut emissions are solely driven by profit interests, they will always tend towards for the least-cost option, trying to discover and exploit quick fixes and loopholes, rather than sustainable options which, in many cases, are either more expensive, or have longer lead-up times, or yield fewer emission credits.

The breakdown of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) already issued under the CDM can illustrate this: 48 per cent of CERs accrued from cheap hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) projects which do not have any additional benefits[7]. By contrast, the number of issued CERs from projects to improve energy efficiency at household level is zero, and less than 1 per cent total CERs if projects in the pipeline are considered. This is because projects in this area are small scale and scattered, and they are labour intensive, thus involving high transaction costs. Therefore, though essential for citizens and in particular women in order to save costs and get access to clean energy, they cannot compete with large scale and industrial projects in the carbon market.

Another shortcoming of the carbon market, in particular the CDM, is the underlying one-dimensional perspective focussing solely on greenhouse gas emissions. The assumption that this narrow view can deliver combating climate change is neglecting everything that we have learnt about people and the environment since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In truth, climate policy must be a multidimensional approach, taking greenhouse gas emissions into account, but also aspects of social and gender equity, community resilience, environmental issues such as reducing pollution and preserving biodiversity – in other words sustainable development and all its three pillars of economic well-being, social justice and environmental protection, plus a fourth pillar, as many argue: that of good governance. Universal participation of all, based on equal rights and opportunities, may seem like a lofty goal – far away, and taking too long, particularly in this era of urgency of combating climate change.

Yet there is no alternative. Or should we really seek to rescue the climate without the people?

 [1] United Nations Development Programme, 2007. Human Development Report. United Nations, New York

[2] See www.unfccc.int for current negotiating documents (April 2011).

[3] See: GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice (2009): ‘Gender Mainstreaming and Beyond – 5 Steps Towards Gender-sensitive Long-term Cooperation’, Submission to the AWG-LCA, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/smsn/ngo/140.pdf

[4] Edgar G. Hertwich, Glen P. Peters: Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2009, 43 (16), pp 6414–6420

[5] For more details see, e.g. Gotelind Alber: Gender, Cities and Climate Change, background paper prepared for UN-HABITAT’s Global Report on Human Settlements 2011, available at http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?typeid=19&catid=555&cid=9273

[6] Of course, we see this as an entry point, not as an argument to confine women to local level decision-making.

[7] CERs are the units to measure carbon credits issued from projects under the CDM. HFCs are industrial gases, and some of the are unwanted byproducts from industrial processes. Their destruction is cheap, but has nevertheless received CDM credits in countries lacking regulation stipulating to avoid them.