LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A forester by training, Jeannette Gurung says it’s been a “lifelong struggle” to win recognition for women's role in managing trees and other natural resources. And when it comes to climate change, she is frustrated that women are mostly portrayed as victims of its impacts rather than part of the solution.
"The world view sees women as secondary citizens, who are not usually primary actors, but are more like charity cases," the founder and director of Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN), a network that pushes for women's empowerment, told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Bangkok.
Gurung's response was to develop a new standard for carbon-cutting projects – the Women's Carbon Standard (WCS) – that aims to compensate women for adopting clean energy technologies, more fuel-efficient cook stoves or water filtration systems.
At the San Francisco launch of the WCS in April, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. climate change secretariat, said the "lip service" paid to gender and climate will have no real impact "until it makes a difference for each, individual woman".
The WCS offers a "very good way" to ensure that projects to reduce planet-warming emissions actually improve women's quality of life, she added.
The standard – due to be tested in Laos and several other Asian countries in the coming year – aims to promote and measure the benefits for women, their families and communities in six different areas: income and assets, time, education and knowledge, leadership, food security and health.
For example, when a woman starts to use a biogas digester to turn methane from livestock manure into gas that can be used for cooking and other household purposes, the time she must spend collecting firewood falls dramatically. She can also sell the slurry as organic fertiliser.
Water filters reduce both the amount of fuel and effort needed to boil water so it is drinkable. An improved cook stove has the same effect for food preparation, and is good for women's health as they inhale less smoke.
PROJECTS WITH BENEFITS IN DEMAND
The driving force behind WCS is that investors in carbon credits issued by projects that reduce emissions are increasingly looking for their money to produce social, economic and environmental benefits, as well as offsetting their carbon footprint.
At the same time, tough market conditions and falling prices are pressuring project developers to give their product additional value that is attractive to new buyers.
Market figures certainly show there is a growing appetite for carbon projects with these additional benefits.
According to a recent report, demand for offsetting in the voluntary market – where buyers purchase credits out of choice, not to meet mandatory emissions reductions – grew 4 percent in 2012. Buyers paid an average of $5.9 per tonne of carbon, much higher than the United Nations' regulatory carbon offset price of less than $1 per tonne.
The State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2013 report also noted that demand surged last year for carbon offsets from forestry projects that also guarantee biodiversity conservation and alternative livelihoods for local people. And buyers funnelled $80 million into projects that distribute clean cook stoves and water filters.
Corporate social responsibility was cited as the most important reason for buying voluntary carbon credits, with companies accounting for 90 percent of total purchases.
Lee West, a member of the WOCAN board of directors and a California-based investment advisor with close to 30 years of financial experience, told Thomson Reuters Foundation he expects that major U.S. firms, particularly those run by women or with lots of female clients, will be attracted by carbon credits that also help women escape poverty and boost their well-being.
“Companies can now tell a story – not only are they offsetting their carbon footprint, but they are ... increasing the livelihood, education and free time of women in other countries. That is hitting home to a lot of people," he said.
There is also a profit motive because, if a business invests in women's development, it could sway consumers to choose its products and increase market share, he added.
NO “GENDER WASHING”
The challenge now is to develop rigorous and affordable methods to assess the benefits for women, according to Samuel Bryan, technical director for Nexus-Carbon for Development, a cooperative of development groups that plans to work on WCS pilot projects in India and Indonesia.
“We really need to have a trial-and-error process to work out the best way of doing that,” he said. Some indicators like job creation and savings in fuel and women's time can be counted relatively easily, but more indirect benefits such as an increase in women's leadership are harder to gauge, he added.
One problem is that most developers and auditors of carbon projects are unlikely to have the level of gender expertise needed, and may require additional training.
Both West and Gurung insist the WCS will be strictly enforced, to avoid any perception of "gender washing" and to protect the standard's reputation. "There will be lots of pressure to water it down coming from the market,” Bryan warned.
Neither will it be easy to enlist the participation of women in poor communities, Gurung said. “They get glassy-eyed for the most part when they hear the terms carbon finance or carbon market, so I think we have quite a lot of work to do with women’s groups themselves to get them to become project developers,” she said.
No firm date has been set for when the first WCS-certified carbon credits will hit the market, but those involved in developing the WCS anticipate they will be available next year.
"As one colleague said to me: 'We’re a bit like the woman in the red dress at the dance who everybody wants to dance with'," Gurung quipped.
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