As a businesswoman who has dedicated my life to elevating opportunities for African women, I’ve seen how the historical exclusion of women – and especially women from Africa and the Global South – from international climate talks has derailed climate action.
Only by rectifying this systematic marginalisation of women can Africa fulfil its true potential as a leading global renewables powerhouse.
That is why I am celebrating attempts at the Africa Climate Summit, the first of its kind being held in my home country Kenya, to push back against entrenched gender inequalities.
If we fail to marry the energy transition with the goal of empowering women, the continent will not succeed in combating climate change.
In a ground-breaking move, the African Union Commission, which represents 55 African countries, signed a joint statement with the Government of Kenya and the UAE presidency of the upcoming COP28 UN talks in Dubai, endorsing the goal of tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency to stay within the 1.5C safe limit for global warming. The statement also calls for a “comprehensive systems change”, including the need to transform “food and health systems” while protecting nature and biodiversity.
Neither African governments nor previous COP presidencies have placed such wildly ambitious goals on the political agenda before. And although these goals have not yet taken the shape of a binding agreement, they are being supported with real action.
At the Africa Climate Summit, COP28 president Dr Sultan Al Jabr announced that the COP28 presidency itself will invest $4.5 billion to mobilise up to tens of billions more in African clean energy projects. According to Al Jabr, the point of the pledge is “to clearly demonstrate the commercial case for clean investment across this continent” and to create “a scalable model that can be replicated to help put Africa on a superhighway to low carbon growth”.
This is a huge milestone—with one major caveat: women must become linchpins in the continent’s new, evolving clean energy landscape.
That means overturning years of women being side-lined in climate talks and overlooked in governmental and institutional planning. Just 9% of energy project aid focuses on gender equality, and the UN’s clean energy goal (SDG7) omits gender entirely.
Currently women bear the worst impacts of climate change and energy poverty, accounting for 80% of food production and over 60% of agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet over three-quarters of total public climate-development finance in Africa this decade failed to consider gender at all.
And across Africa, women are marginalised from politics, education and employment. Previous UN climate talks have in effect discussed an ‘energy transition’ by and for men.
This gender-blindness is literally killing the planet. Companies with more women on their boards are more likely to lead them into policies aligned with the goal of capping climate change at 1.5C; and women around the world overall do more than men to change their behaviour to reduce emissions: so excluding them is an existential risk.
That’s why I’m celebrating how this week African nations are uniting for the first time not just to combat Africa’s climate threat, but also to highlight the gender inequalities preventing us from implementing real solutions.
As the First Lady of Kenya, Rachel Ruto, pointed out at the summit, only by equipping women with knowledge and skills can they be empowered to become champions of clean energy and sustainability. She convened a meeting of senior women leaders at the summit to focus on the critical importance of women to the success of the energy transition.
The lessons of the Africa Climate Summit must be taken all the way to the United Nations climate talks later this year. The goal of tripling renewable energy capacity, as the African Union Commission has now endorsed, is only one half of the equation. The other half is removing the barriers preventing women from racing toward this target. This must be enshrined in any global agreement – without it, not only Africa’s but the world’s clean energy transition will fail.
There are signs of progress. COP28 has already appointed women to senior roles representing the presidency, with Shamma Al Mazrui, UAE Minister of Community Development, appointed as Youth Climate Champion and Razan Al Mubarak, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature appointed as the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion.
And just under half of COP28’s advisory committee are women, a big step-up compared to previous COPs which failed to include women at a senior role. The presidency has also called on all delegations to explicitly increase the role of women and young people in negotiations to make this “the most inclusive” COP.
Yet though these are big milestones, they are still baby steps. It’s time for world leaders to recognise that without empowering the world’s women on the frontlines of the battle against climate change, no global agreements will produce the change we need.