Barbara Creecy | Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change response

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Climate change protesters (iStock)
Climate change protesters (iStock)

Climate change, just as Covid-19 did, is likely to leave women vulnerable, writes Barbara Creecy. 

A number of commentators have pointed out that the current Covid-19 crisis can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the ways in which countries will be affected by, and will respond to, climate change.

Just as has been the case with the pandemic, it is widely acknowledged that climate change will disproportionately affect society's most vulnerable.

In the same way that climate change will have differentiated impacts on developed and developing countries, climate change is not gender neutral, and will affect women differently to how it will affect men.

Preconceived notions as to the roles that women are expected to perform, a lack of access to employment and educational opportunities, and a lack of property rights are just some of the ways in which women experience the world differently to men.

The majority of the world's poor are women. And, as the recently released employment figures have shown, casual and contract workers, many of whom are women, have borne the brunt of the pandemic's economic fallout.

A 2010 academic study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation of rural communities in the Mzinyathi and Mhlathuze municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal examined the issues of gender and climate change, and provide a case study of how gender dynamics in low–income rural areas of South Africa could determine the impacts of climate change.


The different expectations placed on women in these communities with regards to responsibilities, such as childcare and tending crops, meant that they felt overburdened when compared to their male counterparts, who are of the same social class.

Simple tasks that are seen as women's work, such as collecting water for their families and engaging in informal trade, will be impossible if there is no water available, and if there is no homegrown produce to sell.

We cannot generalise how climate change will affect those living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability. The specificities matter because, if we are committed to a Just Transition, we must ensure we leave no one behind.

This means we need to understand how climate change impacts the lives and livelihoods of different communities. This will allow for appropriate adaptation approaches.

We have learned two important lessons from the pandemic. Firstly, the coronavirus' origin as a zoonotic disease has highlighted how environmental degradation and other pressures on the natural environment can have devastating consequences; we cannot allow biodiversity loss to continue.

READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: Critical issue of climate change must not be relegated due to Covid-19 crisis

We have also learned that, when government works in a unified manner against an identified threat, much can be achieved, and we can use such an approach to steer investment in sustainable and low emission industries that can be used to #buildbackbetter and determine our climate change adaptation strategy.

Our approach to our country's recovery from the pandemic has also been influenced by international developments.

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), of which South Africa holds the presidency, has discussed a proposed a Green Stimulus Programme, which has a focus on revitalising the sectors most affected by the pandemic, such as ecotourism, conservation and the associated nature-based economies, which employ a large number of women.

South Africa's recovery strategy has a number of components, but central to these is an understanding that promoting a more sustainable economic trajectory can open up new industries, particularly those in areas like renewable energy and public employment programmes, which rehabilitate ecosystems and ecosystem services.

Paris Agreement

Despite focusing much of its energies on fighting Covid-19, our government has not put the pressing issue of climate change on the back burner.

We have committed to building the architecture to effectively implement the Paris Agreement because the means of implementation is central to investing in new industries and new technologies.

In September, Cabinet approved the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) – an important step in setting out South Africa's objectives, interventions and outcomes with regards to meeting our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The NCAAS is gender responsive, and its implementation will promote greater participation of women in decision-making, take gender differences in vulnerability to climate change into account, address the needs and priorities of both women and men, and will not exacerbate gender inequalities.

READ | Opinion: The youth must persuade their elders against jumping off the climate change cliff

Cabinet also approved the forming of a Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission (PCCCC), which will oversee our Just Transition, and ensure that such policies are inclusive and achieve the objectives of building sustainable social, economic and environmental resilience and emergency response capacity.

Internationally, South Africa has maintained our commitment to fulfilling our obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The country's Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) will be deposited with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This will communicate the country's needs and priorities, so that developed countries who want to support implementation efforts through finance, technology or capacity building are assured that South Africa has a plan to reduce its emissions. 

International financing

The principle of differentiated responsibility is important, and the acknowledgement that countries will be affected by climate change in different ways, means that we cannot put the issues of gender and local specificities to one side.

Multilateralism and global cooperation are paramount if we are to address the challenge of climate change; technical and financial support for developing countries' adaptation and mitigation strategies is crucial.

International financing is a key component of many developing countries' adaptation strategies, and opportunities need to be leveraged for the countries of the global south to take advantage of the blended finance options that are available to them.

In this respect, we are grateful to the international governments and institutions that have generously contributed to our post-Covid recovery and adaptation measures.

It is important to remember that the intersection between gender and climate is complex, but it cannot be swept under the carpet if we are to ensure that all our citizens are properly equipped to deal with the issues that face the country.

Cooperation in this regard is key.

The tools exist to modify and synergise our responses to climate change accordingly.

 -Barbara Creecy is the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

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