Chermaine Lee

Published: November 29, 2022

Topic: COP27 | Stories

This story was published as part of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.

Women are more involved in China’s climate action now, but do they have more decision making power?

At COP27’s opening ceremony, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell earned applause after stressing that “women and girls should be placed at the heart of climate decision-making and action.”

On the gender-themed day on Nov 14th at COP27, UN Women shared the findings of government responses to COVID-19 and gender equality. In China, only about 14% of the entire national task force for handling the pandemic are women, lagging behind its peers Japan and South Korea.

“It is crucial that [we include] women’s perspective and knowledge if we are to have a sustainable and lasting recovery [from the pandemic],” said Dr Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, at a panel in COP27.

Women’s contribution to recovery is not just limited to the pandemic. “We know that the Paris Agreement lasts longer when women are at the table. We need to be able to recognize and measure the unproportional impact of the climate crisis on women and girls and we need to ensure that women are in decision making spaces and central to efforts to build a sustainable economy, she added.”

A gendered lens while mitigating the climate crisis is unparalleled—women are found to be more environmentally conscious. “Many existing studies, including ours, have found that women have higher concern about global warming and climate change, as well as many other environmental issues, than men in China and in many other countries,” Dr Xinsheng Liu, research scientist at Texas A&M University, specializing in environmental politics, told Climate Tracker.

In China, while women have been involved in climate actions, more scope remains. The most recent government data shows that women account for one-third of the staff in the Ministry of Environmental Protection, only slightly behind the EU. But, the rest of the country’s leadership continues to be predominantly male.

Currently, there is only one female member among the 25 Politburo members, and women only account for 8% of the 371-strong central committee, the group next in the Communist Party’s hierarchy. Further, only two out of 31 provincial governors are women. This means that the country’s top level still lacks a gendered perspective in climate decision making.

This gender inequality in high-level management could also ripple into public health implications, as women in China are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than men, according to a 2016 UN report.

The role of traditional culture

Perhaps the roots of minimal decision making agency can be traced back to traditional Chinese culture.

The traditional division of labor at home and in a community has been found to “directly impact” women’s income, access to resources, as well as information about climate disasters, the UN report found. In conventional marriage customs, women own less land than men, and this also lowers their chance of qualifying for loan.

More limited access to resources aside, the report found that they also have less decision making power at the household level. This might explain why they have shown a lower rate of engagement in public discussions at a community level.

“It is very challenging for women to navigate a hierarchical and authoritarian political system that remains firmly dominated by patriarchal structures, is actively shrinking the room for feminist voices,” Lu Chen, researcher who talked with over a hundred women in China’s rural and urban areas, wrote in an article.

Gender and climate change have officially been recognized as part of China’s gender equality policy, but the environmental policy has “very little mention of gender,” a 2020 study on China’s climate and gender found.

Chen’s research shows that progress has been made in involving more women in environmental actions, particularly those who aspire to become more eco-conscious.

She found a woman-led climate movement in a rural area in China that has gained momentum. Older women in the village run a market where residents can obtain necessities including toothpastes, paper and gloves in exchange of collected waste and recyclables like plastic bottles and cans. Their efforts were later recognized by the government, and the project was promoted as a model for other cities, Chen found.

“Regarding gender dynamic in communities, since the previously private and gendered affair of garbage sorting becomes politicized or put on political agenda, women’s labor also becomes more recognized and valued. In organizing volunteer organizations and other public events, women’s chance to participate is enhanced,” she told Climate Tracker.

However, the male-dominant authorities have not shown interest in involving these women in decision making beyond the projects they lead. Chen’s study found that these women were invited by the state as teachers and trainers for expansion of their projects, but were not invited to join formal discussions or decision making processes related to finance and politics. The female leaders also do not exert their influence further, according to Chen’s report.

A separate study showed that green NGOs in China have begun to strike up conversations about climate justice and the relationship between climate change and socio-political reforms. The author urged the state to boost such efforts, as well as lead public participation in such conversations.

In the future, experts suggest authorities increasingly recognize women as active agents in climate change adaptation and mitigation, like providing regular training on gendered perspectives to municipal and county-level officials. The state is urged to conduct more gender and vulnerability analysis and implement policies that ensure women’s access to resources.