It Takes a Billion Glass Ceilings to Make a Greenhouse
For all the handwringing, we aren’t doing enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s flagship report, released just over a year ago, already seems almost quaint in hoping for a moderate rise in global temperatures. This refusal to acknowledge the problem (or insisting that you are fine and others are the obstacle) echoes the behaviour around another systemic issue: gender inequality. International Women’s Day is a moment where we recognise the need to fight gender inequality in all arenas. Well, climate change also has a gender bias. Women will be more affected by it, partly due to the additional barriers they face every day. At the same time, this provides an opportunity – the solutions are there that will allow us to fight climate change by reducing gender inequality, and vice versa.
The effects of climate change will be most felt by those that have done the least to contribute to it: low-income households in developing countries, and especially the women that lead them or are just part of them. For example, female smallholder farmers are much more likely to lack training, access to tools or access to credit, making it much harder to adapt to extreme weather. The legal, financial and cultural barriers that make women poorer will essentially condemn them as oceans rise, deserts grow, and food supplies fail.
Happily though, women in the developing world can be part of the solution. There are a variety of ways that allow us (all of us!) to empower them and, in doing so, address gender inequality and tackle climate change. Simply keeping young women in developing countries in education for longer could reduce global population growth by up to one billion people by 2050. Indeed, empowering and educating women has been shown to be one of the most effective ways that we can limit climate change, not to mention boost economic growth. Conversely, solutions to a greener future can create a more equal future too. When some of the 860 million people without access to electricity are provided with renewable energy solutions, emissions are reduced and the whole household benefits. Yet it is especially women who benefit from better health (women and children constitute the majority of the 4 million annual deaths from domestic pollution due to kerosene lamps, biomass-burning stoves etc.) and a lighter burden of domestic work (allowing them more time to generate their own revenues). In either case, by providing access to education and clean energy, we can apply solutions that recognise and address the role of gender in limiting climate change.
I say “limiting”, because some form of climate change is inevitable. Even the most benign scenario will leave half a billion more people exposed and vulnerable to water stress by 2050 and a billion more exposed to regular, extreme heatwaves. Our ability to build resilience to this will depend on providing access to all the tools that enable us to withstand such disasters (for now) in Europe and the US. Some of these are societal goods (stronger flood defences, roads etc.), but some are at the individual level too. For example, insurance, savings and other financial services have also been shown to build resilience. Yet in developing countries, the gender gap for simply having a bank account is still at 8% since 2011 (equivalent to around 200 million people), making it harder for women to deal with shocks. Supporting microfinance institutions, especially those with high proportions of female clients, provides greater economic independence to women while helping to build resilience among the most vulnerable.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that gender inequality plays a role in the greatest threat faced in a generation. Last week UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “Gender equality, including men stepping up and taking responsibility, is essential if we are to beat the climate emergency.” We know that gender bias reinforces and aggravates climate challenges. So replacing glass ceilings with solar panels, and empowering women where inequalities are greatest, could help to save us all.
Paul Hailey is Head of Impact at responsAbility Investments and the author of various publications and articles. Previous roles at the company include Senior Research Analyst for the financial sector. He has an MBA from École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris (HEC Paris), where he is also a lecturer, and a B.A. (Hons) from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.