How do we get there? Putting the Gender Action Plan into action at COP26

Ushana Jayasuriya and Dr Sarah Cook

As the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Scotland, it is more important than ever to push for gender justice in climate change planning, and for a gender just transition. The UK had been heavily criticised for fielding an all-male team to lead the negotiations. As a result, more women have been brought into prominent roles for the UK negotiation team. However, it is telling that in the first COP since the Gender Action Plan was agreed upon, the host nation selected an all-male negotiation team in the first instance and highlights the hegemonic practices of overlooking or excluding female voices. A concerted effort will be essential for ensuring gender justice on a global level.

The Gender Action Plan (GAP) from COP25 detailed a timeline for gender action in the next five years. It involves increasing participation and inclusion of women in decision and policy making at all levels, internationally, regionally and domestically. The Plan features five focus areas with key points involving: building capacity to respond to gendered impacts of climate change and enhancing opportunities for women to lead and be agents of change; ensuring gender balance in participation and leadership in climate change; ensuring coherence in gender-responsiveness across all aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; ensuring the means of implementation including sufficient finance and involvement of women’s groups; and strengthening the monitoring and reporting framework on gender responses climate policies.

These points reflect many of the principles of environmental justice such as participation, recognition, inclusion and acknowledgment. Gender justice will not be achieved if women are not afforded positions to lead development of gender-responsive climate policies, and if their voices are not heard in international processes. Increased participation by women will help highlight the particular challenges faced by women who are often responsible for managing essential environmental resources and are therefore at the front-lines of climate change. The GAP lays down a framework for measuring progress on gender action. This needs to be implemented at all levels for just outcomes to be achieved.

The actions needed at COP to ensure gender justice and a just transition were raised when IGD hosted a series of expert workshops in 2020 which highlighted the many ways women are/will be impacted by climate change, but also how they can lead the way for more climate resilient futures. These ideas echo in many recent reports about the gendered impacts of climate change. In the IGD discussions, the ‘care economy’ was front and centre recognising that care for people and care for the environment, while distinct, also share common features in being undertaken largely by women, often outside a market framework, while producing benefits that are essential for the functioning and sustainability of economies and the planet. Covid-19 made visible the ‘care crisis’ in many of our economies which, together with the climate crisis, demonstrates the unsustainability of an economic system based on the depletion and under-valuation of both natural and social/care resources.

The IGD workshop highlighted connections between caring for family and community and the impacts of a changing climate: in many contexts, women and girls bear the burden of increased travel distances for water, difficulty in providing food to sustain families, or working longer hours to maintain care levels. Within the formal economy of care, women are overrepresented in the underpaid roles of nurses and carers. The exclusion of these issues and voices - care and care workers, formal or informal from climate related calculations and policy decisions, undermines the ability to make progress on climate and sustainable development goals. Women’s inclusion and leadership will be essential for effective climate action. There can be no climate justice until there is racial, social, and gender justice.

Due to COVID-19, this COP has also faced criticism in relation to equity of access to the conference, with some countries “red zoned” and therefore delegates needing to isolate on arrival. For a global summit on the impacts of climate change and what can be done about it, it is shocking that those most impacted by climate change will face additional barriers to attend. This would also mean more time away from their home countries and the responsibilities they may hold there. For some, the additional cost will prevent participation and result in many voices not being heard. COVID-19 has already highlighted many inequities, and vaccine access may be limited for some delegates, further reducing their ability to participate. Could a simple solution be to make the COP much more accessible through extending online access? COPs have previously faced criticism for the large carbon footprint of all delegates and civil society participants flying into the negotiations from around the globe. COVID-19 forced us all to work and collaborate online and this would have been an excellent opportunity to both reduce emissions and ensure equitable access. The aversion to an online format may in some ways reflect the nature of these negotiations, with many informal conversations between negotiators for countries making deals and tradeoffs inaccessible to those merely attending the conference. With much being decided behind closed doors, the impact of formal processes within the GAP might have minimal effect. For the summit to aim for just outcomes, it will need to carefully consider who is speaking and whose voices are not being heard, or who is not present, at the negotiations and how these negotiations are taking place. When world leaders and negotiators get together, they must keep the interests of those they represent front of mind. Ensuring gender justice and improving diversity in representation and participation is therefore a crucial step to realising justice in the international negotiation space.

On November 9th, COP26 will host a themed “Gender Day” with civil society speakers advocating for women’s participation and leadership in addressing climate change and how we can achieve a more just future. Civil society organisations, such as Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), will push for greater recognition and inclusion of women in climate and transition spaces, though this must also move on to the higher-level negotiations of the COP.  A list of events at COP26 concerning gender and climate change can be found here.