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Gender-sensitive policies

April 3, 2012

Do men have a larger carbon footprint? Are women more eco-conscious? And why does gender and global warming matter? GLOBAL IDEAS spoke to Ulrike Röhr, an expert on gender issues and climate change.

Women with solar cooker (Source: dpa)
Women are taking a lead in adapting to climate changeImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Ulrike Röhr
Ulrike Röhr says more research is needed on gender aspects of global warming in the West Image: Ulrike Röhr

Ulrike Röhr is the director of Genanet, a project of the Berlin-based organization Life. It promotes environmental protection and gender equality and promotes the idea that gender perspectives must be integrated into climate policy – not just in developing nations but in the industrialized world too. Röhr spoke with GLOBAL IDEAS about why the "female factor" is important in climate negotiations and protection measures.

How is the issue of climate in industrialized nations different from that in the developing world?

The main focus in developing countries is adaptation strategies to help women cope, who are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. The main issue in the West is mitigation and how we can reduce our carbon emissions. That quickly brings us to our consumption patterns and lifestyle. One thing is clear – we cannot continue with our current consumption levels of energy. The question is how we can change that, what measures do men and women prefer and whether there are gender-specific emissions. So that's where the gender perspective comes in, where the gender differences begin.

So, are there gender differences in how men and women perceive and respond to climate change?

Yes. Women and men perceive and assess risks differently and that is also true for climate change. Studies have shown that more women than men tend to think climate change caused by global warming as very dangerous and that it is unavoidable. When it comes to responses, men tend to prefer and believe in technical solutions to mitigate climate change. That includes things such as carbon capture and storage technology, electric cars or innovations such as boosting the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon or injecting nanoparticles in the atmosphere to create a protective layer to divert sunlight away from the earth.

Women, on the other hand, tend not to rely as much on science and technology to solve environmental problems but rather are more willing to alter their ecologically harmful behavior. They tend to think more about the risks associated with such technologies and the effect that could have on their children. You can see that too in the resistance against nuclear energy in Europe. These differing perceptions affect each gender’s motivation to protect the climate.

In recent years, studies in Europe on energy use and human activities separated by gender suggest that men have a higher carbon footprint than women. Do you agree?

A man in a car
Not without my car! Gender differences on energy use in the West are most visible in the transport sectorImage: ddp/Daimler Chrysler

Well, for example, a study in Sweden - one of the world’s top ranked countries for gender equality - examined the different energy consumption patterns of men and women in single households. It found that men consumed almost 25 percent more energy than women and this difference was consistent across all income and age groups. This gender difference is linked most closely to energy use in the transport sector, particularly the size of cars and their higher use by men and for longer distances.

A woman eats strawberries
Women tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and emit fewer emissionsImage: Michael Urban/ddp

The other area where gender differences play a role is food consumption. We know that men and women have different eating habits. And we know from studies, in Germany too, that men consume much more meat than women. And meat contributes hugely to energy consumption and carbon emissions.

What explains the difference in behavior between men and women?

It has a lot to do with the different social roles assigned to men and women and gender-specific identities in society. These images are very strongly embedded in our minds - a man needs a car "to present himself as strong and rich" or that "a man needs to eat meat to become strong." Women tend to pay more attention to body image and health in their eating habits and opt for more yoghurt or fruits and vegetables. But of course that doesn't mean that women are better or that men alone are to blame for climate change.

A woman buys vegetables
Income plays a role in women's willingness to change their environmental behaviorImage: ddp/David Hecker

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is income. The fact is that women earn less than men and there is a correlation between low incomes and low energy consumption. That's also a reason why women are more willing than men to change their behavior towards the environment. If you don't have the means to buy the latest generation of energy-efficient appliances or insulate your apartment or put a solar roof on your house, you are more reliant on changing what you consume.

Why do we need a gender-sensitive approach in climate policy at all?

Integrating gender into climate policy makes policy efficient, effective and ensures that it's accepted by the entire population. If you begin considering gender aspects in climate measures, you usually never stop at that but rather come to different social factors such as education, income, origin, age that all play a role in determining access to resources and the possibility to participate. The full diversity of social groups and their living situations are more likely to be taken into account when formulating policies. That's why a gender analysis is the starting point towards making any climate policy socially fair.

How much of a say do women have in the West in setting the climate agenda?

The fields of energy policy and transport, which are especially relevant for climate protection and contribute significantly towards carbon emissions, are still male-dominated because of their technical focus. So they tend to result in policy geared towards male needs. So, when it comes to traffic for instance, men tend to favor electric mobility rather than working on the size of cars or driving fast. But we have to ask what the effect of measures and policies are if they are almost exclusively designed and planned from the viewpoint of one gender and whose experience and background are taken as the only measure. The different needs, opportunities and goals of both men and women need to be taken into account.

Does that mean that women need to be more involved in decision-making on climate policy?

Christiana Figueres
More women are needed in climate change decision-makingImage: AP

Of course I'd like women to be equally involved as men in decision-making at all levels. But their participation and visibility alone doesn't necessarily mean you will have a different, gender-sensitive policy. What's more important is that gender aspects as well as other social factors gain more importance in climate policy. Gender must be integrated into climate protection negotiations and policymaking at local, national and international levels. But we need the political will to do that. Policymakers must realize that if they develop a gender-sensitive climate measure, there's more chance of it being supported and accepted by the broader populace. I think they're squandering that opportunity.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Ranty Islam