When will leaders get it? We can’t solve climate change without gender equality

President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Britain's King Charles, and officials pose for a family photo during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 1, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Britain's King Charles, and officials pose for a family photo during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 1, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

What’s the context?

The lack of gender balance on the COP29 organising committee is the latest example of women being sidelined in climate decision-making

Editor's note: Later on the day this article was published, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan added 12 women to the organising committee for the COP29 climate summit, as well as one man, taking the total number of members to 41 (comprising 29 men and 12 women). The new list was published without comment on why the change was made.

Angered, but not surprised - that’s how I felt when I read that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev had announced an organising committee for the COP29 U.N. climate summit made up of 28 men and zero women. It’s not the first time women have been excluded from climate decision-making - but I hope it will be the last. The original all-male group included more fossil fuel executives ​​than women, a worrying sign of corporate capture at the highest levels.

It’s true that we have a long way to go before full gender equality is achieved in climate change decision-making. Data tracked over time shows that women are not participating equally in climate change negotiations — despite the fact that climate change is a deeply gendered issue.

But we are fighting for our rights at every opportunity. The tireless efforts of feminist advocates I work with in the Women and Gender Constituency at the negotiations, along with support from progressive governments, led to a standalone UNFCCC Gender Action Plan being agreed in 2017, and renewed in 2019. There are now 132 decisions under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that mention gender, with 54 of them specifically referencing gender balance in decision-making processes on delegations and bodies, among others.

With this announcement on the COP29 committee, the Azerbaijani Presidency has blatantly ignored these mandates and threatened to roll back the already slow progress towards gender balance. This is even more alarming given that COP29 is set to be a critical moment for renewing the Gender Action Plan.

So, what can we do to change this?

First of all, women need to be able to lead at all levels - from the village council to national governments to U.N. party delegations. This is not because it’s a ‘nice’ thing to do, but because it’s a matter of human rights. We make up half of the world’s population, and we have a right to be represented. 

Of course, women are not all the same, so care must be taken to ensure an intersectional approach that brings in women from marginalized groups, including disabled women, women from the LGBTQ+ community, Black women and women of color, Indigenous women, and women from the Global South. And we need to go beyond considering gender alone – Indigenous Peoples and other frontline, affected communities must be prioritised as key stakeholders. Doing so can help ensure that community needs and local solutions to building climate resilience are elevated and magnified.

Challenging patriarchal mentality

Secondly, women need the power and resources in order to succeed. The existing UNFCCC Gender Action Plan has already identified objectives and activities necessary to work towards gender equality via women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the U.N. climate process, including the promotion of travel funds and initiatives for capacity-building in leadership, negotiation and facilitation of negotiation for women party delegates. 

It is crucial that countries replicate these efforts nationally by assessing and addressing gender imbalances in decision-making across all areas, including climate and environment, and tackling systemic barriers to women’s equal access to power. This should include a specific focus at national level to strengthen capacity and knowledge for direct engagement in global climate policy. We must go beyond including women as a tick-box exercise, and challenge the patriarchal mentality seen in Azerbaijan and across the world.

Last and most importantly, we must acknowledge and address the underlying structural issues that drive both the climate crisis and rampant gender inequality. This is not about a single committee: gender injustice is a systemic issue that impacts all aspects of society, politics, and the economy.

Representation is a necessary step towards equality. But true transformation requires creating the conditions for an equitable, just and healthy society and planet. We can start by centering meaningful inclusion, backed with adequate resourcing and opportunities for capacity-strengthening, and fully embracing principles of diversity.

With 10 months to go before COP29 kicks off in Baku, the Presidency has plenty of time to change its approach. I look forward to working with my Azerbaijani sisters to make the negotiations a success and to move one step closer to delivering true climate justice. 

Mwanahamisi Singano is an African feminist passionate about fighting structural and intersecting inequalities. Mwanahamisi serves as Senior Global Policy Lead for the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and as a member of the Women and Gender Constituency Facilitative Committee.

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Women coal loaders pose for a picture in Jharia coalfield, India, November 10, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tanmoy Bhaduri

Part of:

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