What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about what measures your organization could invest in to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – Improving solar panel technology? Switching to electric cars? While all of these initiatives are vital aspects of any strategy to reduce CO2 emissions, it may surprise you to learn that improving outcomes for women could also lead to reductions in carbon emissions. In fact, investing in measures to reduce gender inequality is not just a moral imperative – it is also a key part of the solution to meeting the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement seven years ago. 

As focus shifts to COP27, which will be held in Egypt this month from November 6-18, UNEP FI is launching a series of blogs to examine the links between gender, climate and finance. In this first blog post, we will examine how and why women are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change and explain the important role women can play in mitigating the impacts of climate change through improved agricultural production, access to healthcare and education, and family planning. Keep an eye out for subsequent blog posts which will examine the links between gender and a just transition, and find out more about how financial institutions around the world can combat climate change through investments in gender-smart climate finance initiatives.

It is an unfortunate reality of climate change that it has been largely caused by those who have the greatest resources, and yet the impacts are being felt disproportionately by those with the least resources. Women in particular are much more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change than men, largely as a result of poverty. 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in conditions of poverty are women, most of whom are highly dependent on the land for survival. At a global level women produce 45-80% of the global food supply and bear most of the responsibility for sourcing food, water and fuel for their families. And yet despite this, women own less than 10% of the global land supply.  

With fewer resources, more responsibilities, and a closer reliance on the land for survival, is it any wonder that women are 14 times more likely than men to die or be injured during climate-related natural disasters?   

To make matters worse, as increasing drought conditions across the globe make access to water and growing crops more difficult, women are forced to spend more of their time on subsistence activities such as collecting water and growing food, which means they have less time available to improve their economic situation through education or formal employment.  

All of this paints a rather bleak picture for women if we fail to meet our net-zero carbon goal. This is why we need more investment in programmes that provide women with better access to education, employment, and financial inclusion, in order to help the most vulnerable populations adapt to the negative impacts of climate change.  

In fact, there is a double benefit to investing in programmes that improve outcomes for women – not only does it help women adapt better to the impacts of climate change, but it can also mitigate climate change and reduce global carbon emissions. 

One of the solutions to improve outcomes for both women and the environment is through assistance to smallholder farmers. In most countries, especially those in emerging markets, women comprise the majority of the agricultural labour force on family farms. However, women smallholders tend to produce less food per hectare when compared to their male counterparts. A major reason for this productivity gap is that women are often excluded from access to capital and credit to pay for the tools needed to increase their productivity. Women also have fewer educational opportunities to build their capacity and learn more efficient farming practices. By closing the gender productivity gap in farming, and increasing the overall output of smallholder farmers, we can grow more food on existing agricultural land, which leads to less deforestation and therefore fewer carbon emissions. In fact, it is generally estimated that improving the productivity of women smallholder farmers could reduce carbon emissions by up to 2 billion tons by 2050. 

Another significant way to improve gender and climate outcomes is through better access to education and family planning. Although considerable progress has been made in access to universal primary education across the globe, there is still a gender education gap in one third of all countries. Improving educational access for girls is beneficial in many ways, including improved health and economic outcomes, and lower maternal mortality rates. Women and girls with higher levels of education and, in particular, better access to health and reproductive information, are also in a better position to make informed decisions about family planning. In fact, research suggests a strong link between women’s education levels and an overall reduction in the number of children that women choose to have. According to current estimates, the global population is around 8 billion today, and is expected to increase by almost 20% to 9.7 by 2050. This increase in population is expected to lead to further demand for limited resources, and drive up demand for carbon-intensive products and services. By increasing access to education and empowering women to make their own decisions about the size of their family, we could potentially slow the rate of population growth, leading to an estimated 68.9 billion tons of carbon reduction by 2050. This is more than the estimated emission reduction from solar panels or switching from gas to electric cars! 

Based on these estimates, it is clear that no climate change strategy would be complete without taking gender into consideration.  

This is exactly what we are doing at UNEP FI. We are committed to mainstreaming gender into all the initiative’s projects and programmes. This is imperative not only in the fight for climate change, but also to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and achieve the UN 2030 Agenda. 

Gender is also an important consideration in our Social and Human Rights Strategy for 2023, and we look forward to sharing more details in a few months. In the meantime, read more about the work UNEP FI is doing in this area. For more information, contact Joana Pedro, UNEP FI Social and Human Rights Lead. 

Authors: Joana Pedro, Cassandra Devine and Marie Wallner.