The future of cities: Low-carbon, resilient, gender-smart and equitable 

Kate Cahoon and Gotelind Alber, GenderCC

At the Special Event for Observers last week, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) Co-Chair opened by highlighting the growing importance of non-state actors in climate policy, particularly in regards to mitigation and at the level of implementation, emphasising the need for cross-sectoral collaboration and greater involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. An example of where this is particularly evident, in the words of the Co-Chair, is “of course, cities.” 

While cities face increasing challenges in the context of widespread urbanisation and a rapidly changing climate, they are also gaining recognition as key actors in the response to global climate change. The parallel with another hitherto neglected aspect of the climate issue is striking: gender considerations, too, have been overlooked in the mainstream debate and policy for decades, although women are often placed in even more vulnerable situations by climate impacts and severe weather events, or indeed, by badly designed ("gender blind") policies and response measures which fail to take into account their needs. However, as we saw on Gender Day on Tuesday 9 December, the linkages between climate and gender are becoming increasingly apparent, as is the need to recognise women as key actors in effective climate policy, at every level of planning and implementation. 

Here, cities can once again be highlighted as sites of high relevance – and huge potential. In many cities around the world, the divide between the privileged and underprivileged can be as large as the global divide between developed and least-developed countries. The poorest members of the population – those who have the smallest carbon footprint – are often crowded together in areas most exposed to climate hazards, such as landslide or flood-prone areas. Furthermore, the poorest of the poor are often women, limited in their capacity to respond by their more limited access to resources and socially constructed gender roles. As a result, a considerable “gender gap” continues to exist in leadership, decision-making, education, health, wages and access to resources and finance. This gap is particularly apparent at the local level, where male-dominated sectors such as transport and energy continue to neglect women’s priorities and capabilities. While there is a persistent lack of gender-disaggregated data, particularly at intra-household level, it is clear that policies are both more equitable and more effective if they speak to the social context in which they are implemented and address the needs of both women and men.

At COP20, we are seeing welcome and in-depth discussions about the need for gender-responsive policy frameworks within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Until now, the focus has been largely on the international policy process, so what does this mean for local governments? Gender-responsive risk-impact assessments can be used in urban planning to make cities – and their inhabitants – more resilient. At the same time, as major emitters cities are well placed to contribute to emission cuts, using a wide range of policies and measures. Especially when other policy levels fail to deliver on strong and comprehensive agreements, local government commitment and action is crucial. Making progress on gender equality is arguably a worthwhile goal in its own right, yet creating linkages with climate policy presents a unique opportunity for cities to achieve a range of objectives and start working today towards becoming low-carbon, resilient, equitable and gender-smart in the very near future.