Why women’s health needs to be at the heart of the climate solution
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
We stand at a critical tipping point of the climate crisis. The planet has already warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial boom of the 19th century and scientists forecast a rise of 2.7F, potentially by 2030. The impact of this is evident all around us: with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, rising temperatures and more extreme weather events. The recent Hurricane Ian that hit Florida is reported to have contained 10% more water due to climate change, resulting in more rain and severe flooding. Left unchecked, the climate crisis threatens our security and survival on this planet.
While many governments and companies seem to be frozen in inaction, there are some signs of hope. The climate tech sector has boomed in recent years, with billions of dollars being poured into solving the climate crisis. A total of $87.5 billion was invested in climate tech between Q3 2020 and Q2 2021, and 14 cents of every venture capital dollar goes towards climate tech. So much so that, two years ago, Kara Swisher at The New York Times predicted that the first trillionaire would be an entrepreneur in green tech. Furthermore, many companies – both public and private – are beginning to seriously consider sustainability through working towards net zero or B Corp status. September saw the groundbreaking announcement from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard to channel the company’s annual profits to combat the global challenge of climate change. As capital is increasingly reallocated, we see the evidence that markets are beginning to respond to a long overdue crisis.
However, climate tech has a problem; a gender problem. Many of these investors and entrepreneurs are overlooking critical social changes that must also occur, especially addressing gender and racial inequalities. In fact, adaptation initiatives that do not consider sustainable development as a holistic issue risk increasing gender and social inequalities.
This is exacerbated by the fact that climate tech remains a male-dominated field. While in general female entrepreneurs receive less funding than their male peers, this gap is even greater in the clean tech sector. In 2019, just 15% of climate-related venture capital funding went to start-ups with at least one female founder, while in Canada, only 10% of greentech business founders are women. However, without women’s voices in the room, the sector misses huge potential for diversity and innovation, as well as an understanding of the challenges women experience in relation to climate change.
Enhancing women’s health and rights will help the planet
If climate tech is going to be our key to solving the climate crisis, women’s health is a critical success factor for achieving change.
Empowering women and girls is the most impactful tool for a climate safe future. The groundbreaking Project Drawdown has calculated that empowering women and girls globally could prevent 120 billion tons of emissions by 2050. Project Drawdown evaluated 80 climate solutions and found that educating girls and women’s access to family planning resources ranked as 6 and 7, respectively, in reducing carbon emissions and together had a far greater contribution than any climate tech solution that was tested.
Evidence clearly demonstrates that when women are educated, they marry later, have fewer children, and invest in the health and education of their families. Rapid population growth is having a hugely detrimental impact on the planet and measures to reduce it will help ease pressure on resources. While reproductive rights and the freedom to choose need to remain central to any conversation about reducing fertility rates, doing so will slow population growth and, in the long run, reduce carbon emissions. It's simple: the more people on the planet, the greater the stress we put on the planet. So while transitioning to a more sustainable way of living is crucial - especially for those in high-income countries - reducing the rate of population growth will also reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. For this to happen, women need access to a full range of family planning and contraceptive options, to make an informed choice that is right for them. If every girl was able to exercise her rights through quality education and access to modern contraception, it could reduce fossil fuel emissions by 37%–41% by the end of the century. According to the UN SDGs, only 57% of women are making their own informed decisions on sex and reproductive health care.
Closing the education gap for girls will not only mean women and girls are positioned to make informed reproductive choices, but will also ensure women and girls are better placed to adapt and respond as climate change affects their lives and communities. When girls go to school, they learn critical skills to respond to climate-related shocks, and gain the abilities to lead, participate and make decisions, while also fostering more equal power relations between girls and boys, women and men. Evidence shows that countries that have invested in girls’ education were better able to withstand extreme weather events such as droughts and floods than countries with lower levels of girls’ education. Education also better positions women to enter the job market and improve their income. Project Drawdown explains that women with the ability to invest tend to reinvest that money into their families and communities — 90 percent of their earnings, as compared to 30 to 40 percent for men.
Similarly, climate change intersects with women’s health in relation to menstruation. More than 12 billion disposable menstrual products, such as pads, tampons, applicators and packaging, are thrown away around the globe each year, contributing to 6% of sewage-related debris around rivers and beaches, and potentially leaking harmful chemicals detrimental to the environment. As women become more financially insecure in the face of climate change, their ability to purchase period products is put at risk, resulting in women leaving products in for longer or reusing unclean products. Menstrual health innovations can therefore benefit both women’s health and reduce climate change and pressure on natural resources.
Gender inequality has dire consequences for women as the climate crisis escalates
Data from around the world shows that women are more adversely affected by climate change and more vulnerable to climate shocks. Women are 14 times more likely to die because of climate events and comprise 80% of the people displaced by climate change. Women’s greater financial insecurity reduces their resilience and ability to take protective or proactive steps in the face of climate change. Climate induced stress or disruption for families reduces women’s attendance at school and at work. In the event of natural disasters and climate events, women’s care duties are further extended as they bear a disproportionate responsibility to care for the family and household needs. Climate change events have a negative impact on women’s health, especially during pregnancy – resulting in premature births, low birth weight and stillbirths – as well as higher levels of heart, respiratory and infectious disease. Evidence also shows that climate change and disasters exacerbates the risk of violence against women and girls. The financial insecurity that results from climate change and climate events, exacerbates the risk of child, early and forced marriage. This negatively affects girls’ health (as well as their agency and rights) as it results in early pregnancy and childbirth – the complications of which are among the leading causes of deaths for girls aged 15-19 - as well as the risk of sexually transmitted infections and gender based violence.
Women’s health needs to be part of the solution
Solving women’s rights issues clearly has a dramatic impact towards reversing climate change and, therefore, women’s health and rights need to be taken hand in hand with any climate solutions. Working on these issues hand in hand will contribute towards achieving the SDGs, reduce gender inequality and put us back on the path to recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. Initiatives such as quality sexual and reproductive health education and information, access to contraceptives and quality abortion care, and free, quality primary and secondary education, while ostensibly social initiatives, can have profound benefits for the climate. Women’s voices are desperately needed to present climate solutions from an innovative perspective that address women’s needs. We also need to broaden our understanding of climate tech and solutions. Women’s health and femtech are important dimensions of the race against time to reverse the climate crisis and reduce the harmful impact of humans on this planet.