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Copenhagen: Did it do anything for Women?

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change was held Copenhagen in December 2009. There were high hopes that the Conference would make substantial strides towards slowing and ultimately stopping climate change caused by human beings, eventually alleviating its effects. The outcome was discouraging, but does it signify the complete loss of hope?

By Kathambi Kinoti

This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series that explores the gendered impact of climate change. Part 1 analysed how women are affected by climate change; Part 2 detailed how women are responding to climate change "on the ground;" Part 3 explored how women were organising in preparation for the December 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change; and this 4th and final part discusses how the outcomes of the conference might impact women's rights.

In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the President of the Maldives, Dr Mohammed Nasheed chaired a cabinet meeting underwater. Wearing scuba diving gear, and with fish swimming among them, the President and his ministers sat around tables with name cards in place. They used hand signals and whiteboards to communicate and while underwater they signed a statement calling for cuts in carbon emissions. The gesture by the Maldives’ cabinet highlighted the gravest immediate concerns of low-lying coastal areas and islands; they could be submerged underwater if the rise of sea levels is not halted.

Noelene Nabulivou is coordinator of Women’s Action for Change (WAC), a feminist community-based organisation in Fiji. “The Pacific Ocean is a primary source of resources, especially for small-island states like Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu,” she says. “However the rapidly rising sea level due to global warming caused primarily by human action means that the Ocean is also becoming our biggest threat.”

Disappointing outcome

The outcome of COP 15 will not allay the fears of these island inhabitants. Campaigners for a comprehensive deal at Copenhagen had hoped for binding outcome agreement, but what resulted was the unambitious Copenhagen Accord negotiated by Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the United States. The Accord noted the need to reduce global warming by 2 degrees centigrade but no concrete or harmonised actions are specified for the achievement of this goal. A press statement by the Women and Gender Constituency under the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change quoted scientists at the Conference who warned that the inaction will result in a 3.5 degree rise in temperature this century.

In the pre-Conference period developing countries had asked for funding from industrialised nations for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Copenhagen Accord called on developed countries to provide USD 30 billion of this between 2010 and 2012, and a further USD 100 billion by 2020. It does not specify who will pay what and therefore does not place any real commitment on any industrialised country. While the short-term funding is certainly needed, a more comprehensive financing plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation is necessary. The Copenhagen Accord did not set a goal for stopping deforestation although it did propose the establishment of a climate fund that would provide money for developing countries’ actions to protect forests.

The Women and Gender Constituency criticised restrictions on access to the Conference by thousands of accredited civil society representatives whom it said had come “well prepared with presentations, research materials, documentation and personal testimony- all ready to contribute to a real outcome of the COP.” This, said the Constituency, limited the options for finding a solution to climate change, silenced their voices and meant that a lot of money went to waste.

Implications for women

Women bear the heaviest burden of climate change, whether it is because they have to walk longer distances to find water, because they are most severely affected by disease outbreaks brought about by natural disasters, or for a number of other reasons.[1] In the absence of a comprehensive enforceable agreement that curbs climate change, more Asian and African girls could be kept out of school by their families so that they can fetch water that has become more difficult to find. In Fiji, women fish in the coastal mangroves which are in danger of disappearing. WAC Creative Director Peni Moore says that they are the ones with the added burden to replace food stocks and come up with alternative housing and land initiatives. “Yet they never occupy the top seats at the table,” observes Moore. “Sometimes they are not even in the room when discussions occur between policy makers.” Climate change is going to further impoverish the poor, and the poorest of the poor are women.

The statement issued by the Women and Gender Constituency recognised that gender-sensitive language had been retained in the negotiating documents, but since the final Accord is not legally binding, this may be cold comfort.

What next?

Cate Owren [2] of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), which is part of the Women and Gender Constituency, says that climate change is the most urgent issue of our time and is also the most comprehensive one, as it reaches every aspect of our societies, economies and governments. “The comprehensiveness is of course one of the reasons it is so difficult to design policies,” she says, “But we can't let the difficulty delay us further.”

The Constituency urges an increased number of women chairs in the UNFCC, and more meaningful participation of women and men from all sectors in national and global climate change. It also calls for a strengthened commitment to prioritise the most vulnerable, and a strengthening of gender-sensitive approaches in the draft agreement for the next UN climate change conference which will be held in Mexico towards the end of this year.

Although big industry is the most culpable actor in climate change, individuals do have some power to safeguard the earth. The Women and Gender Constituency calls upon individuals to make use of their “power as consumers, and to support services and products that are healthy for the climate and the planet.”

Owren says that they remain focussed on ensuring that in 2010 the gender language that was included in the Copenhagen draft texts will be secured in the more comprehensive outcome of the Mexico meeting. The Women and Gender Constituency urges hope, saying that it is not too late yet. “Without a binding agreement the only real success of Copenhagen can become a broader movement of citizens and consumers,” says their press statement. “This movement would be fuelled by the behaviour of each individual to switch to a sustainable way of life and can become the base for a global, ambitious, equitable legally binding agreement for climate protection.”

Copenhagen came and went with its disappointments, and positive action by governments at the Mexico conference will not be precluded by the outcome of Copenhagen, but individuals do have significant power to turn things around.


1 For detailed analysis of how women are affected by climate change, see the first article in this series: How are Women Affected by Climate Change?

2 For Ms. Owren’s pre-Conference perspective, see The UN Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change: How are Women Organizing?