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An effective response to the twin problems of climate change and the loss of biodiversity must also be grounded in improving gender equality, says Jane Ambachtsheer.

It is well known our changing climate can have significant impacts on biodiversity around the world and, in turn, that loss of biodiversity through activities such as deforestation can impact the climate.

How does gender fit into this picture? A growing body of work is demonstrating that the interdependent problems of climate change and biodiversity loss will have disproportionate impacts on women – but also that women can (and already do) play a critical role in safeguarding both biodiversity and the climate around the world.

The first element of these interlinkages between environmental challenges and gender equality has come into sharp focus due to a confluence of recent events. The increasingly damaging effects of recent extreme weather events has been particularly felt in developing economies where women make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce. Here, they face uncertainty due to unpredictable weather patterns and water supplies and the resulting effects on flora and fauna that farming systems depend on. 

The combination of heavy involvement with agriculture and broader structural inequalities, such as being locked out of traditional financial systems, mean women are inherently more vulnerable to natural disasters, climate change and biodiversity loss. Poor women are 14 times more likely to die during a natural disaster and account for around 80% of climate refugees. A meta-analysis also suggests women are more likely to be affected by most climate impacts on health.

Women also have less access to resources that would increase their capacity to adapt to climate change, according to the UN, such as services to help cushion the financial impacts of disasters and environmental threats to their livelihoods. If women had the same access to resources as men, the FAO estimates that farm yields would increase by 20%-30%. 

More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic – the origin of which may also be tied to human encroachment on the natural world – has acted to amplify these effects. As a result of the pandemic, women have overwhelmingly been the first to assume duties of care for children, the elderly or other dependents – forcing them out of the paid workforce. An estimate from the World Economic Forum suggests that, due to Covid-19, progress towards global gender equality has been set back by 36 years, meaning equality across sectors will not be reached for decades to come. Without action, this same backsliding effect is likely to even greater in the context of a destabilising climate.

Taking action

Understanding these issues in an interconnected way is of paramount importance as we strategise for success in the pursuit of climate action, biodiversity conservation and equality. 

While women may be disproportionately affected by environmental issues, they also play a critical role responding to them, such as in ecosystem service-based climate strategies that aren’t only cost-effective, but also have social, cultural and economic co-benefits. Numerous cases indicate that women are more knowledgeable when it comes to local species, and that the act of empowering women in itself results in more effective and efficient biodiversity conservation efforts.

A number of public and private initiatives have begun to embrace this understanding. For example, in Kenya the Mtangawanda Mangrove Restoration Women Group is helping monitor, preserve and restore depleted mangroves in Kenya’s Lamu archipelago, thanks to a programme from conservation organisations, the Kenya Forest Service and other partners. Members of the group are granted loans to launch small businesses, and in return are trained to look after and nurture the mangroves – which are important for biodiversity enhancement, climate resilience and carbon sequestration.

While primarily a conservation effort, the economic terms of the programme actually target one of the major inequalities for women in the global south: access to financial services. The International Finance Corporation has estimated that a $300bn gap in financing exists globally for women-owned small businesses, while the African Development Bank has suggested women face a $42bn financing gap on the continent. Closing this gap could have an enormous positive effect for women, but also for our climate and biodiversity.

Action is also being taken in Latin America. According to UNDP, all the region’s climate pledges (otherwise known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) include gender considerations; 11 promote gender equality and eight contain gender-responsive climate targets. The organisation highlights initiatives, such as in Costa Rica, that are aimed at providing environmental finance for women “biodiversity managers” to protect local natural resources.

On a broader level, at the COP14 UN biodiversity conference in 2018 it was agreed the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, set to be discussed later this year at the upcoming biodiversity COP in China, would be gender-responsive and include gender-differentiated considerations in the role of men and women in safeguarding biodiversity. For climate, in 2018, the UNFCCC released a Gender Action Plan for the Paris Accord, and uptake of its principles is growing.

A global solution

Elsewhere, studies have shown that placing women in leadership roles and increasing gender diversity at a corporate leadership level can result in more effective climate governance across a broad range of firms. The same is true in the field of climate science itself

In short, an effective response to protecting the natural world, both to safeguard biodiversity while providing effective ecosystem-based approaches to climate mitigation, needs to consider gender at all levels – in terms of gender-specific impacts, and improving gender equality when it comes to planning, funding, capacity building, technology development and decision making. To address the climate and biodiversity crises without understanding their effects on women – and women’s contribution to tackling them – would be to ignore the experience of half of the global population, and forego their vital expertise.

In the public and private sectors, from financial institutions to farms, there is more we can do to harness the power of women to build a more equal and sustainable world. Project Drawdown (see) has identified educating girls (combined with family planning) as the top solution to climate change. As we recognise the interlinking relationships between climate, biodiversity and gender, we must respond with approaches that not only acknowledge, but utilise and celebrate their connection. To put our best foot forward and take decisive steps to protecting our planet and people, we must ensure everyone taking those steps is able to do so equally. BNP Paribas are delighted to be working with the Women’s Forum to promote awareness and concrete actions at this essential nexus.

By Jane Ambachtsheer, Global Head of Sustainability · BNP Paribas Asset Management

Exhibit 1: Analysis of 130 studies found 89 (68%) concluded women were more affected by climate impacts than men

Source: Carbon Brief. Data from Global Gender and Climate Alliance (2016)