Women's Earth & Climate Action Network, International
The Women's Earth & Climate Action Network is a solutions-based, multi-faceted effort established to engage women worldwide to take action as powerful stakeholders in climate change and sustainability solutions. For Our Earth and Future Generations A project of Women's Earth and Climate Caucus and its partner eraGlobal Alliance
« Fresh Water, Oceans, Climate Science

Achieving Sustainable Development; the Challenge of Climate Change for Women

photo of Carmen Capriles

Started by: CarmenCapriles


During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED), climate change, desertification and the loss of biodiversity were identified as the greatest challenges to sustainable development. Since then, despite three United Nations conventions  – the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - and other efforts, results are few and each remains a risk, decreasing the likelihood of a sustainable future.

An unstable climate resulting from carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) and a growing lack of productive land and loss of species work together in a feedback loop, increasing the related negative consequences, which can include lack of food security and availability of clean water. These impacts are gender sensitive and will contribute to increasing poverty, particularly among the poorest, where women make up the majority. The post-2015 framework and sustainable development goals must address this interrelationship.

Reasons for working in this topic, project or business:

Climate impacts are gendered

Aside from increased temperature, climate change manifests in different ways around the world: increased and more intense storms and floods; long droughts; melting glaciers; ocean acidification. Further effects can include forest fires, less reliable or loss of seasonal crops due to changing distribution and intensity of rain, migration of species and resultant shifting disease vectors, loss of biodiversity, among others. Impacts will be felt everywhere from big cities to small villages, the poles to the deserts, developed and developing countries, coasts and mountains.

Climate change will result in an imbalance in water, food and energy security. The manifestation will be significant for all, but particularly for women, as highlighted by the example of water.  In areas affected by floods, women are often in a more vulnerable situation due to lack of information, inability to swim or cultural restrictions on movement. Women are generally the ones responsible for fetching household water (see Table 2); when water is scarce or contaminated, women and girls spend many hours on the task – decreasing available time for school or other livelihood/employment activities.

Contaminated water may be a result of poor sanitation or the destruction of water systems during climate-related storms, which results in water-related illnesses and diarrhea, and it is often women who spend time and energy to take care of the sick. Water quality and availability issues may increase malnutrition, which puts everyone’s health at risk, in particular girls and pregnant women. Rising sea levels and coastal flooding can result in sea water intrusion to fresh water sources. Where women in Bangladesh drink water with high salt content, they experience reproductive issues such as eclampsia, miscarriage and stillbirth 20 times higher than in other areas of Bangladesh (Islam, 2013).

During long walks for water or in camps and shelters after storms, women face physical and sexual violence. Limited water means less water will be available for productive purposes. Women, especially heads of households, will face higher food prices, lower incomes, decreased ability to feed their families (especially rural women who play a primary role in household food production) and increased time poverty. In tending to basic needs, education will become less a priority, contributing to cycles of poverty and challenging efforts to meet goals of universal education. The consequences of climate change have an effect on almost all aspects of women´s daily life and long-term development, which in turn affects the entire community.

Further, productive systems will begin to deteriorate and eventually whole ecosystems will collapse, which underscores the need for rapid global response. New policies on water resources and climate change must incorporate measures consistent with the reality of women in the most vulnerable sectors, mainly in rural areas (Capriles, 2010).

The impacts are a challenge, particularly to those relying most on natural resources, such as local population that rely on native flora for non-profitable resources and women using them for household needs. It is critical to build resilience to the impacts and to mitigate the causes; women play a pivotal role in both adaptation and mitigation and their contributions should not be underestimated. 

The threats of climate change have a strong gender impact, thus mitigation and adaptation strategies should incorporate gender considerations in order to move beyond the status quo, transform the current dynamic and to improve the state of gender equality. Countries should make sure mitigation and adaptation strategies take into account the rights and needs of women and ensure equitable sharing of the costs and benefits, not only between countries and generations but also between men and women.

For example, mitigation strategies are often based on market or payment mechanisms and lack a gender or long-term social justice perspective.  For example, the promotion and use of biofuels requires a gender and environmental analysis; they have a share of emissions and have a high social cost when they compete with food crops or are grown for industrial uses that do not contribute to development of the local community. Other mitigation strategies that prioritize carbon sequestration may affect the relationship between women, especially indigenous women, and the forest, as such strategies may not prioritize local community benefits or consider unequal land tenure rights, and they may ultimately reduce access to forest resources.

Climate change links with CEDAW and women’s rights

Women´s rights and gender equality must be guaranteed in order to achieve sustainable development, and therefore climate change must be addressed in a way that ensures women’s rights are not at risk and are promoted. Existing legal and normative frameworks guide the connections between gender equality, women’s rights and climate change. The three Rio Conventions – UNFCCC, CBD and UNCCD – all now include references to women or gender equality; CEDAW addresses the connection, for example in Article 14, “…the particular problems faced by rural women and the significant roles which rural women play in the economic survival of their families, including their work in the non-monetized sectors of the economy, and shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the application of the provisions of the present Convention to women in rural areas”.

Some governments have taken an approach that addresses both adaptation and mitigation, for example, the Bolivian proposal on integrated forest conservation policies, as this did not take account of the multiple functions forests provide. These include livelihoods for local communities, as well as biodiversity, food security and access to water resources. It should be ensured such approaches are fully in line with CEDAW and take into account women’s rights and needs and the vital role of women in biodiversity conservation. It should also be recognized that women are key agents for adaptation and mitigation to climate change thus differentiated strategies for responses are needed (Parikh, 2007).

Root causes of the problems in this field and main barriers:

The greatest contributor to climate change (global warming) is CO2; the world must lower its CO2 emissions to a concentration of approximately 350 parts per million (ppm) to stabilize the planet´s temperature (Hansen, 2009) and therefore the climate. Data show that atmospheric concentration of CO2 hit a new peak  in 2011 (391.57 ppm), which is an increase of 2 ppm per year during the last 10 years and 40% greater than preindustrial levels (Table 1).

Table 1: Annual average of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere


Annual average of CO2 (ppm)







Copenhagen Accord (UNFCCC)



Bali Action Plan (UNFCCC)






Kyoto Protocol



Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro



The last year when annual average CO2 level was less than 350 ppm



The full year of instrument data

Source: Annual CO2 Data from the National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration,

USA (NOAA): NOAA-ESRL Fund in: http://co2now.org/


In 2010, C02 emissions came primarily from 3 sources: burning fossil fuels, the cement industry and land use change (Le Quéré et al. 2009, Nature Geoscience Canadell et al. 2007, PNAS). Historically, the major emitters have been developed countries, but as of 2009, some emergent economies within developing countries are emitting more than developed countries, for example China now emits more than the US in terms of consumption, (GlobalCarbonProject.org) as one 2009 study suggests, 50% of the rise in Chinese emissions are the result of manufacturing goods for foreign markets (The Guardian, 2011). Nevertheless most of developing countries have a very low emission rate, but we also have to take into account developing countries that are burning out their forests as product of land use change. In addition it is vital to take into account the common but differentiate responsibilities, with the knowledge that 2012 was the warmest year on record (CO2now.org).

It has been proven that women contribute less to CO2 emissions.  For example women are over-represented as heads of low-income households and underrepresented in high-income groups. In this respect, income levels play a role in CO2 emissions: the higher the income, the higher the emissions from larger houses with more electrical equipment, bigger cars and so on (Witty, 2007). Therefore the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities has also a gender dimension that we need to understand in order to achieve climatic justice for women. 

What is needed to overcome barriers to implement solutions:

The role of women should be central in any proposed goals, taking into account that they have a strategic role in achieving real solutions to the climate crisis, from both an adaptation and mitigation standpoint. As climate change and gender equality are addressed hand-in-hand, it is important to create policies that are flexible enough to adapt to women’s varied and changing roles in society – to avoid locking women into one role that thwarts the goal of transformative change.

Specific needs and/or support requests:

Achieving sustainable development must take on climate change and recognize that that climate change, like other global crises, is not gender neutral. Addressing climate change requires an equitable approach that protects and promotes human rights in order to ensure sustainable livelihoods, women´s rights and achieve gender equality.

Suggested best local solution for this topic:

As the threat posed by increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere has not resulted in a strong political response, it is clear there is a lack of political will to commit to lowering emissions and stabilizing temperature. Therefore real change may best be based on something more tangible and visible – the impact on people’s lives, homes and businesses – coupled with the scientific facts.

Linking climate change to and international agenda means focusing on issues that are directly affected by climate change such as water access, supply and availability, food security and sovereignty, as well as alternative, renewable, sustainable and low-cost energy sources. In all cases, goals should focus on integrating women into key roles and ensuring women and men have the necessary information, the appropriate technology and the resources to face these challenges.

Suggested best global solution for this topic:

Costs and benefits posed by adaptation responses to climatic hazards - as well as mitigation strategies - must be accessed through a gender lens and the results acknowledged in order to strategically tackle some of the equity and equality gaps that delay achievement of sustainable development.

Best practices and policies:

  1. We should take into account the common but differentiated responsibilities from a gender point of view.
  2. Achieve and ensure gender equality and women’s rights and empowerment are fundamental to deal with the climatic crisis.
  3. Promote capacity building women in relation to skills that lead to adaptation technologies needed to ensure livelihoods as well as other benefits that may have.
  4. Refocus the thinking and the debate on climate change to include a human rights perspective.
  5. Women play as primary users of water have to ensure its supply and access to water resources so as to participation in the processes decision-making at all levels
  6. Recognize and take into account women's specific needs and abilities, and women's human rights.
  7. Incorporate solution that go beyond current economic models based primarily on privatization strategies.
  8. Ensure accountability to meeting people's basic needs.
  9. Engage rights-based, socially just and coherent ecosystem-based approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation in order to contribute significantly to gender-sensitive climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies applicable to a post-2015 framework and SDGs.
  10. Promote different means of information sharing to ensure women have timely access; integrate this within all the goals.
  11. Maintain flexibility to account for local realities and practices.
  12. Draw upon successful practices that promote efficient resource use in different social contexts when designing adaptation and mitigation strategies
  13. Share experiences in order to reach solution by identifying concrete problem. 


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