Mary Robinson on how tackling climate change can have positive outcomes for justice, gender and economic development

Mary Robinson on how tackling climate change can have positive outcomes for justice, gender and economic development

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Date: 8th November 2013
Type: Feature
Tags: climate negotiations, UNFCCC

Mary Robinson is a former President of the Republic of Ireland (1990–1997) and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997–2002), founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and a human rights and climate justice activist. She spoke with Mairi Dupar (CDKN) and Miren Gutierrez (ODI) about gender, development and climate change ahead of the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, 11–22 November, 2013

Q: You have advocated that climate justice – linking human rights and climate change — has to be central to the international climate negotiations. How do you see this happening?

The world cannot have climate justice without first realising the injustice of climate change, and the steps needed to address the crisis. As weather shocks, such as droughts causing mass starvation or unexpected floods leading to the destruction of crops and homes, impact on the basic human rights of those affected, it is clear that the poor and vulnerable people who have done the least to cause climate change are those who suffer most from its impacts.

Climate justice can be central to international climate negotiations if the political will exists for a truly equitable and ambitious agreement. Such an agreement would recognise the impact climate change has on the most vulnerable now, while understanding the unimaginable world we would leave to future generations if we continue the ‘business as usual’ approach.

Previous COPs have proved disappointing in the lack of commitment given by Parties to act equitably and with ambition. But all sectors of society can help change this, by pressurising their political leaders to take climate change seriously.

Q: You’ve also said that climate justice should feature in the post-2015 United Nations agenda for Sustainable Development. Recent ODI research indicates that ‘natural’ disasters, especially linked to drought, can be the most significant cause of impoverishment, and can cancel progress on poverty reduction. With 2015 approaching, the UNFCCC and the post-2015 debate on Sustainable Development seem to be running on parallel tracks. Do you think they should be more integrated? And if so, what needs to happen?

The fact that 2015 has been set as the deadline for both processes provides us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to act in an integrated and effective way. To those who live on the front line of poverty, climate change and development are the same issues. At the grassroots level people don’t put issues of rights, development and climate in boxes. The reasons they are poor have to do with a combination of factors – access to health care, gender inequality, access to food and shelter, access to decision making, etc. Climate change exacerbates these factors.

To adequately address the needs of the poorest, international processes have to be more coherent and respond to the interconnected nature of the issues that make people poor and vulnerable. This means that climate change must be addressed as a development issue in the post 2015 development agenda, while the UNFCCC produces the legal agreement needed to keep global warming below 2°C in 2015. The two processes must work in tandem, support each other and drive each other to be ambitious and fair. Climate justice lies at the nexus of these two processes connecting their shared objectives with a focus on people and rights.

Q: At the last Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Doha, Qatar (2012), you were successful in advocating for a resolution to establish equal participation of women and men in the UNFCCC process. What was the status of women’s representation until then, and how quickly do you hope it can change?

You may remember a previous decision (Decision 36/CP.7), which encourages Parties to actively consider nominating women for elective posts in any body established under the UNFCCC or Kyoto Protocol. However, ten years on from that Decision, a very obvious gender imbalance still existed in various bodies, with women’s representation as low as 10% in some cases.

With the adoption of Decision 23/CP.18 in Doha last year, Parties to the UNFCCC sent a political signal calling for gender balance in the UNFCCC process. The Decision not only sets the goal of gender balance for elected bodies, but also encourages future chairs of such bodies to be guided by this goal when setting up informal negotiating groups and consultation mechanisms. Furthermore, it encourages Parties to strive for the goal of gender balance in the composition of delegations. The Decision also adds gender and climate change as a standing item on the agenda of sessions of the COP; at COP 19, in Warsaw, the Secretariat will host a workshop that focuses not just on gender balance in the UNFCCC process but also gender-sensitive climate policy and capacity building activities. Parties have also committed to review progress made towards the gradual but significant increase in the participation of women and the achievement of this goal at the 22nd session of the COP in 2016.

It is important to bear in mind that the achievement of gender balance is certainly not an end in itself. The decision taken by the COP to strive for this goal is the starting point for the strengthening of gender-responsive climate policy, and a means towards promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment more broadly. What is critical now is the implementation of the decision so that climate change norms and policies genuinely incorporate a gender perspective and integrate women’s rights and women’s voices.

Q: You’ve travelled extensively and listened to women’s concerns about, and experiences with, climate impacts, and their involvement in the solutions. What are they telling you? While recognising that equal representation for women is an important outcome in its own right, what extra value do you think women might bring to the climate negotiations, once they are better represented?

In April of this year, as part of a conference my Foundation co-hosted with the Irish Government on the links between hunger, poor nutrition and climate change, I spoke with many women representatives of grassroots communities at the frontline of climate change. From what they told me, it is clear that they have a lot to contribute in the climate debate. As one of those women – Esther Jabesi from Malawi – said: “you have to listen to me because I have experience – what I know isn’t written in your papers.”

Greater representation of women on UNFCCC bodies and in negotiations can provide the crosscutting experiences necessary to ensure that the decisions taken and the resulting actions at a national and international level are more responsive to the differing needs of women and men in national and local contexts. There is no doubt that the empowerment of women will have a long term positive impact on both the decisions being taken and the process by which they are reached.

Q: Evidence indicates that some of the responses to climate change run counter to principles of sustainable development. What’s more, few plans for promoting sustainability have explicitly included adapting to climate change impacts. How do you see these complexities playing out? And what implications do they have for vulnerable groups?`

There have been responses to climate change that have not delivered the desired sustainable development outcomes. For example, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was designed to deliver sustainable development outcomes but failed to do this due to a tendency to focus on a narrow range of emissions reductions projects. Certainly CDM did not deliver for Africa or Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Biofuel policies are another well-known example – they were well intentioned to shift energy supplies away from fossil fuels. But in diverting land use away from food to fuel they have been associated with rising food prices, and as a result, food insecurity. Clearly this runs counter to the aims of a holistic sustainable development approach.

On your point about sustainability plans not including adaptation – I think it depends who the actors are. Governments of LDCs and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as well as development agencies, tend to have a strong focus on the adaptation aspects of climate action. Business and developed country governments have tended to focus primarily on mitigation. But this is changing – for example, a recently-published Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) report, Weathering the Storm: Building Business Resilience to Climate Change, found that 90% of S&P Global 100 Index companies identify extreme weather and climate change as current or future business risks, while 62% say they are experiencing climate change impacts now, or expect to in the coming decade. The effects of climate change on production supplies and operational costs are a real concern, which is forcing many businesses to adapt.

What is essential is that we move away from seeing climate change as an environmental issue and address it as a development issue through solutions that protect rights and enable equitable access to the opportunities of a transition to low carbon, climate resilient development.

Q: Is economic development and protecting the environment an “either-or” dilemma? What are the trade-offs?

There is no reason why both issues can’t be tackled in tandem. The smart investor will already know that the corporation that remains over-reliant on fossil fuels won’t be worth their long-term investment. The majority of these fossil fuel reserves will have to be left unburned if the world is to stand any chance of avoiding a planet that is more than two degrees Celsius warmer – the limit which governments have decided on in order to side-step the prospect of unimaginable climate conditions.

As the public becomes increasingly cognisant of how their products are sourced, and more motivated to act due to the rise of social media, the need for companies to be accountable for their actions grows. Financial reports alone can no longer be considered the only measure of a corporation’s value. Sustainability needs to be viewed as a sustained societal value. Transparency and accountability are essential in winning over the credibility and trust of their potential customers.

The just transition to a low-carbon economy will be a challenging one, but there are significant potential benefits. In its report The 3% Solution the World Wildlife Fund and the Carbon Disclosure Project state that the US corporate sector can achieve cost savings of up to USD 190 million in 2020 if it reduces emissions by 3% annually by committing to ambitious but feasible climate actions. There are rewards for business if they make decisive changes in the way they operate. But they must act urgently if they are to capitalise on this opportunity.

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