Matt Jackson is the Director of the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) London Representation Office, a UN agency working to improve sexual, reproductive and maternal health worldwide, supporting or working in more than 150 countries and territories to achieve universal sexual and reproductive health and rights and fulfil the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Common Sense spoke with Matt about the intersection of climate and gender injustice following COP26 in Glasgow.
What does climate justice look like for those at the bottom of the ladder?
Climate change is a major threat to the vision of people-centred sustainable development as set out in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) – this forms the basis of UNFPA’s work. Climate change is a multiplier of existing vulnerabilities, particularly health inequalities. Climate change negatively impacts access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation as well as contributing to food insecurity, rising gender-based violence and harmful practices. In particular, women and girls are hit the hardest through climate-induced displacement, including impact on livelihoods and weakening human rights including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
Within this, you can see where climate injustice starts to take hold. For example, having to travel further to collect food, water, fuel or to reach healthcare services and, as we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic, resources are diverted away from reproductive health and maternity services to fight the pandemic. Marginalised groups are the most vulnerable. Sadly, women and girls constitute the majority of the global poor and climate change has a disproportionate impact on women. True climate justice requires gender justice. And gender justice can only be realised by fulfilling sexual and reproductive health and rights.
How can climate injustice undermine the socio-economic development of the global south? We’re already seeing this with climate change-induced drought in Somalia leading to mass displacements earlier this year.
You can see the effects of this in a number of places – other examples include where severe flooding, earthquakes or disasters have affected access to healthcare including contraceptives and family planning supplies. At UNFPA, we know that climate change can impact our ability to deliver our three goals by 2030: zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices including female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. For this reason, it is critical that serious attention is given to the impact of climate change on our work. Tackling gender inequality is really key to building a better and healthier planet. It is essential that we tackle the climate and gender crises together to empower women and marginalised groups and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. This is how we can tackle climate injustice. People who already face existing barriers to realising their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are often on the front line of climate impacts.
Have the UK aid budget cuts significantly impacted the effectiveness of UNFPA’s work? Do developed nations have an increasing mandate to realise the ideals of climate justice, given the effects of COVID and the global vaccine imbalance. Can you give some examples?
The UK aid cuts this year have been devastating for the people we serve around the world. UNFPA is the largest supplier of modern, voluntary contraceptives, we’re over 40% of the global market, and the UK was our biggest donor to UNFPA’s Supplies Partnership Programme but disappointingly the aid cuts included a reduction of 85% to this programme as well as reducing core funding by 60%. We’ve also seen cuts in other countries where we have bilateral work. The UK has been UNFPA’s largest donor for a number of years and we’ve been very grateful for this support from the British taxpayer. Yet I’m hopeful that the UK will return to its 0.7% commitment (of GDP), and to supporting women and girls, as soon as possible.
Governments of course make their own decisions on how they spend hard-earned taxpayer money. The past two years have been difficult for many countries due to the economic pressures caused by COVID-19. We’re always immensely grateful for our donors’ financial support. During the pandemic, we’ve had to rise to new challenges particularly with disruptions to global supply chains, new PPE requirements and strains on health systems. We’ve seen gender-based violence (GBV) skyrocket. We know that GBV increases during a crisis including girls being pushed into child marriage and increases in FGM (female genital mutilation). As part of the UN system, we’re doing all we can to support the services that people need on the ground. We have mobile units, people walking over mountains for days, and even the use of drones to deliver commodities and maternal medicines to the hardest to reach communities.
What role do financial measures (relief of debt burdens for example) play in combating climate injustice? 30 of the world’s poorest nations are classified as high risk of debt distress, hindering climate efforts.
I’m not an expert in debt relief measures but I’m aware that there are many economic pressures not just caused by climate but also covid-19 and other pandemics that contribute to increasing pressure on health and education systems. As part of the response to climate change, we’re looking at how adaptation and resilience plans currently reflect the needs of women and girls and where they can do better, such as taking account of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), existing gender inequalities, protection systems, education and livelihoods. For example, we recently reviewed 50 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) but only 6 of them referenced gender or SRHR. Improving adaptation and resilience plans along these lines will help to combat climate injustice.
Coming back to COP, do you think COP26 could have better addressed the problems of climate injustice? (Given the target set in 2009 to provide $100b per year to developing nations has been pushed to 2023). It’s certainly a pivotal issue we’re seeing the impacts of; Madagascar, for example, is on the cusp of the world’s first climate change induced famine.
While the aspiration to keep global warming below 1.5C across the board wasn’t met, for the first time, there was global consensus to transition away from fossil fuels and to speed up countries’ ambition to cut emissions faster. Climate adaptation and resilience-building efforts were increasingly highlighted too, including with respect to financing. As you say, the $100 billion targets haven’t yet been reached – this requires additional effort. An important point to note is that the UN Secretary-General has called for climate finance to be split 50/50 between mitigation and adaptation.
There were some key COP26 decisions related to climate justice: six years after COP21, the rulebook on the implementation of the Paris Agreement was finally reached, also agreed was the operationalisation of ‘article 6’ on carbon markets, a time-frame and transparency for NCDs (nationally determined contributions), and increases in climate adaptation finance.
Despite this, however, there wasn’t any agreement on financing climate-related ‘loss and damage’ for developing countries, which was a source of huge disappointment for a lot of people at COP.
Going back to the role of women (systems of patriarchy and power imbalances), can you provide any examples of programmes you’re working on that challenge that power imbalance in the context of climate?
UNFPA works hard to tackle harmful social norms, including challenging patriarchy and gender power imbalances, to ensure that women and girls are empowered, included in decision-making and have voice and agency. This is also relevant to other marginalised groups such as indigenous people, LGTBQ, persons with disabilities and older people. For example, UNFPA and UNICEF jointly run global programmes to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and end child marriage. As we discussed earlier, these harmful practices are known to surge during times of crisis as a coping mechanism or to secure income when livelihoods are threatened. UNFPA also champions bodily autonomy and our 2021 State of World Population report “My Body is My Own” highlighted the power to make autonomous decisions about your body, as well as our new “bodyright” campaign as a ‘copyright’ for the human body online.
Do you think future conferences can take measures to ensure more comprehensive consideration of climate injustice?
Specific to UNFPA’s interests, for the first time, there were far more interlinkages and discussions between climate change and health impacts at COP26 in Glasgow. For example, the WHO (World Health Organisation) organised a climate and health conference as part of the summit, and UNFPA partnered on side events including removing barriers to health and education as part of adaptation and resilience strategies. COP26 also welcomed the approval of an updated adaptation fund linking to gender policy.
Looking forward to the next conference COP27 in Egypt, I’m hopeful that there will be a greater emphasis on climate adaptation and resilience, signalling new opportunities to make those needed links with health, gender and SRHR. This will be a crucial opportunity to highlight that there is no climate justice without gender justice.