Women Emerge as Powerful Advocates at UN Environment Conference


This month nearly 2,000 government delegates and representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met in New York for the UN Fifteenth Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-15). After two weeks of negotiation, to the surprise of many and relief of others, the conference ended with no agreement on a non-binding long-term energy policy.

The European Union (EU) and Switzerland rejected the final document, supported by the United States among other member countries, as insufficient to the task of promoting sustainable development while reducing air pollution and the green house gas emissions responsible for climate change.

But despite returning home with no document in hand, a wide range of organizations representing civil society was heard and heeded by policy makers in a forum unique to the CSD that includes women as one of nine representative groups working to educate and affect change. The sentiment within the hallways and meeting rooms was that the Women's Major Group, under the leadership of the Women's Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) as principal facilitator, was the most organized and effective segment of NGOs.

Rebecca Pearl, WEDO's program coordinator for sustainable development, commenting by e-mail on CSD-15, said the women's successes were separate from the rejection of the text. "One of our priority areas was making the connection between gender and energy, and governments were largely supportive of that topic," she wrote, adding that, after years of lobbying and educating, such gender issues as women's access to energy services were far less contentious than, for example, discussions about nuclear energy.

Sheila Oparaocha, speaking for ENERGIA (the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy), a partner with WEDO in coordinating the women's group, noted that the CSD-15 document included more references to women than past texts and that of all the proposed additions, these were the only items to which all governments agreed. The women's group, joining other NGO segments and country delegations, also succeeded in keeping all references to nuclear power as an energy solution out of the text.

"Governments were unable to find consensus," remarked Pearl, on "the always-contentious topic of fossil fuels." Nevertheless, she noted, women will be able to use sections of the Chair's Summary of the proceedings to push their governments to increase women's access to energy services.

In arguing for such access, the women's group emphasized the social face of energy. In Sub-Saharan Africa, energy is delivered by women and girls foraging for wood, a far cry from the image of men on oilrigs, so familiar to Western eyes.

More than a third of the world's 6.7 billion people live in energy poverty, using wood, charcoal and dung for cooking and heating; and nearly a quarter have no access to electricity. In rural locations where electricity is available for a few hours a day, often men benefit for evening leisure pastimes but there is no power for women during the day to help lighten heavy chores, or support income generating activities.

Discussing the effect of climate change, the women's group argued that it "often magnifies gender inequality" since women carry the burden when natural disasters make it more difficult to secure water and fuel.

Thus, the group said--pointing to the example of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement in Kenya--programs on climate change "often present an opportunity to address deeper inequalities." The time has come, said the group in its statement, for governments to stop merely talking and actually engage women as "active participants in designing and implementing energy solutions."

In their lobbying and other work they stressed the need to make opportunities available for women for technical and scientific education in energy fields and innovative financing to start and build energy-related businesses at all levels. They underscored the necessity for women's representation at all institutional levels, public and private, and for their active roles in making and implementing energy policy.

Oparaocha worries that a focus on climate change threatens to overshadow existing UN targets for reducing and eradicating poverty. With Africa responsible for only 3% of carbon emissions, why, she asked in a phone interview, shouldn't the poor use whatever fuel is made available to them? It is difficult to argue with her reasoning. At the same time, it is the poor who will suffer most from the ravages of climate change hastened by the continued use of fossil fuels around the world.

The rejected CSC-15 document kept fossil fuels prominently in its game plan--with proponents looking back instead of forward--even as the International Panel on Climate Change was warning that we have 13 years to cut fossil fuel emissions or suffer more rise in temperature by the century's end.

This fell on deaf ears, as did Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's address to the CSD, in which he underscored that this challenge is at the top of his agenda and appointed three climate change envoys. WEDO, according to Pearl, is "happy that the EU rejected the text rather than accept a weakened document," and appreciates the CSD format in that it at least allows for discussion of the social impact of climate change. But selection of the chair of the next cycle, CSD-16, was mired in controversy, and so far, Pearl pointed out, the chair and three vice chairs are all men. "We await the fifth," she added. "It better be a woman!"

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, spoke to the CSD in her new role as UN climate envoy. She recalled the groundbreaking report, "Our Common Future," which 20 years ago, under her leadership, defined for the world the concept of "sustainable development."

The business as usual with a slight adjustment outcome of the SCD-15 deliberations reflects the complexities of convincing the developed and developing countries, and countries in transition that we must change our behavior or nature will change everything for us.

In the words of Brundtland, "It is irresponsible, reckless, and deeply amoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over," she said. "We need to start now to build a global regime that will be effective," she concluded. "You may think we may fail, but I believe we will not, because failing is not an option."

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