If the transition to a green economy is to be just and equitable, the structural inequalities entrenched in society need to be addressed too. Women and disadvantaged communities should share equally in the benefits of decarbonisation, write Liesl Keam and John Carstensen.
Unless the costs and benefits of climate action are more equitably distributed, it will be difficult to achieve the necessary shift towards net-zero carbon, climate resilience and sustainable livelihoods. The transition must be inclusive and fair. If not, the new world that we find ourselves in won’t be either.
An estimated 1.2bn jobs – 40% of world employment – rely directly on a healthy and stable environment. But by 2030, more than 2% of total working hours worldwide could be lost each year because of the impact of climate change on working conditions. The loss of productivity won’t be uniform – some sectors and places will be worse affected and some labour and production environments will become unfeasible.
The threat that climate change poses for the labour market was acknowledged in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which highlighted “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”. This commitment was reinforced by declarations at COP24 in 2018 and at COP26 in 2021, the latter signed by more than 30 countries and committing to green growth, decent work and economic prosperity in the transition to net-zero.
More recently, the just transition concept has been broadened and linked to climate justice. This is where advocates strive to have social, economic, public health and other adverse impacts on disadvantaged communities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Tackling gender inequalities
Despite an increased focus on social justice, there is a need for explicit attention to gender equality. Without this, the climate transition could replicate or even exacerbate the structural gender inequalities that exist today.
These inequalities – spanning all labour sectors – are all too familiar: women’s over-representation in precarious jobs, the gender pay gap, gender bias, women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work, and limited access to social systems designed to protect and help the poorest and most vulnerable.
As economies transition to net-zero, substantial changes to technologies and working practices will occur. But there is a risk that inequalities inherent now are simply carried over as industries change, or even become further locked-in. It’s essential to devote proper consideration to gender as part of our decarbonisation planning or we will miss opportunities to reduce fundamental inequalities experienced by women and girls.
Climate justice for all
There are three levels of thinking around climate justice and each of them offers an opportunity to question and address gender inequality:
- Fair outcomes
How do we safeguard the interests of people and places affected by the climate transition and protect their economic security and wellbeing? For gender equality, the answer is to ensure the benefits of net-zero and the climate transition are shared equally, and that its costs and impacts are not borne disproportionately by any part of the population. One way is to ensure women benefit as much as possible from jobs created by green technology during the switch to a low-carbon economy.
- Distributive and restorative justice
What role should distributive and restorative justice play? This involves taking a more transformative view of justice by challenging existing power hierarchies and looking at how to redistribute power and resources as part of the transition. This would be achieved by correcting and advancing historical injustices (unequal representation or participation of women) in access to new opportunities.
Transformative projects will use their influence to tackle long-term gender inequalities, bringing about lasting social change and challenging the status quo on issues such as economic participation and governance.
- Procedural justice
How just are the procedures? To ensure the process of climate transition is just, all affected groups need to participate in it. However, it should also be acknowledged that different parts of communities will have different levels of ownership and access to resources. This requires us to make sure that voices from all impacted groups and communities are included, and have equal importance in decision-making processes.
The Blue Gold Program in Bangladesh provides an illustration of climate justice in action: Over the project’s eight years, fair outcomes were achieved as women were empowered alongside men to improve flood defences and drainage, gaining representation on the management boards responsible for planning and funding works. By the end of the project the ratio of women to men on the boards was approaching parity, supporting procedural justice in the future management of resources. Women were also taught advanced farming techniques and methods for haggling fair prices at market which, in combination with increasing representation of women, helped to redistribute power dynamics and resources. Overall, Blue Gold has improved living standards for 200,000 households – approximately 1M people – with the greatest improvements in communities where women were most included and equal.
Delivering for communities
Striving to achieve a just transition to net-zero offers a great opportunity to address structural gender inequalities by widening access to infrastructure, resources and services such as health and education.
Mott MacDonald has developed a social outcomes framework that can be used to steer climate action towards a just transition. It addresses accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing. These five principles can be used to guide the development of solutions and to check project performance.
The framework enables us and our clients to engage with communities to explore what a just transition could and should look like. Weighing options against the five principles can help to challenge assumptions, highlight risks, identify opportunities and change mindsets. The framework is not only effective for making marginalised voices heard, especially those who may be concerned that steps towards net-zero will negatively affect their lives and livelihoods, but also for engaging those who wield power and benefit from existing conditions. The result is projects that reconcile client objectives with community needs and deliver better value for all.
A new way of working
To get all this done, we must change the way we deliver our work. We need:
- Better principles: focus on outcomes for communities, not just assets or outputs.
- Better, more inclusive design: make sure all voices are represented and inform development of the solution.
- Better decision-making: collect data to support decision-making that promotes inclusion; include social impacts and costs in optioneering and performance measurement; augment traditional cost-benefit analysis by considering who benefits and challenging any embedded inequalities in existing systems as well as new projects.
We have launched Working towards a gender-equal world, our first group gender equality capability statement, which outlines how we are helping clients design services and deliver projects that are gender-responsive and socially inclusive.