Time to end the UN Climate Change Conference boys’ club

Climate Justice

Time to end the UN Climate Change Conference boys’ club

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She Changes Climate seeks shared female and male COP27 presidency.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference has a leadership problem according to She Changes Climate co-founder Bianca Pitt. Despite a concerted effort to increase the number of women on the U.K.’s top team at COP26 last year and in UN climate leadership roles in general, gender balance at the world’s most important climate conference is still not where it needs to be, she told Climate & Capital.

“Our environmental crisis is the result of a leadership crisis,” Pitt said. “That’s good news because it means we can solve this. We can put in different and new forms of leadership. We should be thinking of shared leadership, we should be thinking about distributed leadership – leadership of the many.”

With the 27th Conference of the Parties climate talks (COP27) in Egypt only months away, Pitt says there is a blindingly obvious solution to the gender imbalance – a shared COP presidency with both a woman and a man at the top.

Only 13% of COP26’s delegation heads were women.

When women don’t have representation, they don’t get their fair share of voice in the room. “Unless we give women the mandate and put them into leadership positions, we are not going to get the full buy-in from the other 50% of the planet,” Pitt said. “And if we don’t get the buy-in we’re not going to be effective.”

A well-publicized push last year to reverse COP gender inequality from leaders such as Mary Robinson, Laurence Tubiana, Emma Thompson and Ellie Goulding didn’t bring immediate change. Men accounted for 74% of speakers in pre-COP finance meetings and 60% of speakers at plenary sessions, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reported. Only 13% of COP26’s delegation heads were women, according to the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation’s (WeDo) most recent gender climate tracker. And the percentage of women in national climate delegations only rose from 30% in 2009 to 38% in 2021 despite years of work to get countries to commit to improving equal participation. 

The women leaders’ push, led by She Changes Climate, attracted global attention and included an open letter to the U.K. Government signed by 400 women climate leaders and luminaries. It had a simple ask – as host of COP26, the U.K. should have balanced representation of men and women in its COP leadership team.

Despite the campaign receiving more than 150 million views online and massive media coverage, COP26 went ahead with a male COP President, Alok Sharma, two male High-Level Champions – Nigel Topping and Carlos Munez. Only two women on the U.K.’s wider COP team were appointed to director roles. 

Change starts at the top.

She Changes Climate hopes to have better luck with Egyptian COP organizers. Another She Changes Climate co-founder, Elise Buckle, raised the shared COP Presidency idea with Egypt’s organisers – known as their climate champions team – and says there is interest.

But making that change would be a big step for Egypt. Despite having a number of accomplished women in its cabinet, few can be found in senior COP27 roles. So far, Egypt’s COP leadership consists of a male President, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, a male High-Level Champion, Mahmoud Mohieldin and two male lead negotiators. One woman, Environment Minister and eminent climate scientist Yasmine Fouad, has been appointed as “ministerial coordinator and envoy.” 

Egypt recognizes there is an issue. The country has just released a white paper called “Women, the Environment and Climate Change” that concludes that “women are underrepresented in the decision-making processes when it comes to environmental mechanisms.” 

Hear our podcast interview with She Changes Climate co-founder Bianca Pitt recorded just before COP26. 

Egypt can still turn the tide, Buckle says. A breakthrough for a co-presidency can only come from the host country because the UNFCCC does not have the power to mandate such a change.

“Change starts at the top,” Buckle says. “If Egypt could show it has a diverse 50:50 team, people will look and say, ‘if Egypt can do it, why not us?’. Then it would be a shame for any country like the U.K. to have a delegation of only white men. It would create a race to the top.”

Still, she says, “It would take a brave country to do it first and show that it works.” 

The UAE, which will host the COP in 2023 and is closely tied to Egypt’s COP, could make the move if Egypt does not, Buckle said. UAE’s parliament is already 50% female.

“Let me be blunt … What I see is disappointing.”

But as with everything regarding gender and climate change, it is politics, rather than data, that drives decision making. And just as climate science is being ignored, so too is a plethora of research that shows that more gender-balanced governments, boards and companies get better results. This holds true with regards to acting on climate change. 

Firms with greater female representation reduced their CO2 emissions by about 5% more than firms with more male managers, according to a recent Bank for International Settlements working paper. 

A 2019 study in the European Journal of Political Economy found that increasing women’s representation in national parliaments leads to the adoption of more stringent climate change policies and lower emissions.

So it’s little surprise that Patricia Espinosa, the outgoing head of the UNFCCC who has championed the cause of gender balance throughout her six years as executive secretary, leaves with a sense of disappointment.

“We have seen some progress,” she told the Global Peace and Prosperity Forum in March. “But let me be blunt with you. What I see is disappointing.” 

Espinosa said COP26 was a case in point. “I couldn’t help but think, as I looked beside me on the podium during the final plenary discussions in Glasgow: Where were all the other women? It was similar when I looked into the audience. I saw many women, but I knew that only one third of them were lead negotiators.”

As Egypt prepares for its COP27 in Sharm el-Sheik in November, will it be the country to break the mold? We can expect organisations like She Changes Climate and WeDo along with women climate leaders from around the world to keep the pressure on for a better outcome. 

Featured image: Scottish government

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.