The COP men’s club continues

Climate Justice

The COP men’s club continues

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Female representation at the global climate talks has gone backward and it’s a global problem.

Where were all the women leaders at the UN’s climate conference of the parties (COP) in Egypt? Other than notable exceptions like Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmin Fouad – who played prominent roles at this year’s COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt – the overwhelming impression is that climate negotiations are still men’s business. 

According to the organization working to ensure women are equally represented at global climate talks, She Changes Climate, only four women have been appointed as COP Presidents since the first COP in 1995. At the 2021 G7 Summit, there was only one woman among decision-makers. At COP26 only 34% of committees, and 39% of those leading delegations, were women. At this year’s COP27, only 7 of the 110 world leaders at COP27 were women.

The UN body in charge of COP – the UNFCCC secretariat – reported just ahead of COP27 that despite a Gender Action Plan agreed upon by all parties in Lima, Peru in 2014, female representation, especially on national delegations, has actually gone backward.

The COP Consultative Group of Experts has seen its female representation go from 52% to 33%.

The 2022 report found that the number of women on country delegations had decreased compared to the previous year – “a reversal of the trend towards more gender-balanced attendance observed since 2018.” 

Even if women manage to get onto national delegations, their voices are rarely heard. At the previous conference, COP26 in Glasgow, women were only given 29% of the total speaking time. On the committees tasked with overseeing the implementation of COP outcomes, the picture is not great either. 

Although female representation has increased in 11 of the COP’s 17 constituted bodies – for example, the Adaptation Committee has gone from 20% to 81% female – in other bodies, women’s representation has reversed. The Consultative Group of Experts, for example, has seen its female representation go from 52% to 33%.

COP27’s Presidency led by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry could only do so much to challenge the mostly-male dominance of COP business.

During the opening plenary sessions, men in throne-like chairs sat inert as a stream of speakers – mostly men – spoke to them from the lectern. The “family photo” from the World Leaders Summit, a two-day series of speeches from national leaders, was an embarrassing 90% male.  

“Women are still missing from world leadership,” tweeted Elise Buckle, co-founder of She Changes Climate, which advocates for a “50:50 Vision” in which women are active participants in all climate decision-making, and COPs are jointly led by a man and a woman. Speaking from Sharm El-Sheikh, Buckle said women need to be in positions of decision-making “not just on the podium to look nice.” 

Women need to be in decision-making positions, “not just on the podium to look nice.” 

Last year, over 450 prominent women and men including Mary Robinson, Christiana Figueres and Bianca Jagger signed a She Changes Climate open letter calling for greater gender balance at the UK-led COP26 in Glasgow. Despite the letter receiving major global media coverage and garnering vast social media support, the majority of managers in the UK’s COP Presidency were men.

Running up to COP27, the number of signatures has almost doubled with over 800 leaders and civil society actors from across the spectrum signing onto a new open letter to Egypt’s COP leadership and leaders attending COP. Signatories included Princess Esmeralda of Belgium, human rights lawyer Cherie Blair, actress Emma Thompson, business leader Paul Polman, philanthropist Valerie Rockefeller, environmental leader Wanjira Mathai and a host of other youth leaders, organization heads, academics and public supporters from around the world.

As multiple speakers pointed out at a “Women Declare Emergency and Raise Climate Ambition” summit just ahead of COP27, gender balance in climate decision-making is not just about getting more female faces on panels at COP. It’s actually vital to longer-lasting and more effective climate solutions.

“When you don’t recognize half of the planet, you’re not going to get the best solutions,” said climate lawyer and activist Farhana Yamin.

According to recent research, when women are represented in a country’s leadership, climate change policies are more effective, resulting in lower carbon dioxide emissions. For example, as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel played a key role in getting scientific targets into climate agreements, starting with the G8 in 2007. 

“We will not solve the climate crisis without dealing with poverty and inequality and the empowerment of women.” 

Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, Co-President of the Club of Rome, told the Summit there’s a “testosterone effect” in which male leaders focus almost exclusively on technological climate solutions. “The decision-making power is in the hands of those who want quick fixes and who are not prepared to go into a more complex process of making decisions,” she said. “We will not solve the climate crisis without dealing with poverty and inequality and the empowerment of women.” 

Potsdam Insititute’s Johan Rockstrom called for greater than 50% leadership by women. He said the Earth is a complex self-regulating biophysical entity and it needs “female values” of cooperation and trust to care for it. 

“Now that we are sliding towards a less liveable planet, we can no longer have male values in the cockpit,” he said. 

As the dust from COP27 settles, She Changes Climate is looking ahead to COP28, set to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 2023. The idea of a joint Presidency shared by a man and a woman is gaining traction. Will the UAE be the first country to break the mold?

Featured photo: Flickr

Written by

Elisabeth Mealey

Elisabeth Mealey is Climate & Capital Media's COP expert and is a freelance writer and communications strategist, specializing in climate change and environmental topics. She worked at the World Bank on climate policy, the Australian Government on indigenous land reform, WWF on Pacific Island conservation and Greenpeace on nuclear testing in the South Pacific. She started life as a journalist, working for newspapers in Australia and the UK and is now back on the environmental beat.