Making innovation work for the climate-gender nexus

Making innovation work for the climate-gender nexus

By Parnika Jhunjhunwala, Junior Innovation Specialist and Benjamin Kumpf, Head of OECD Innovation for Development Facility, Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD

Climate change and biodiversity loss have devastating effects on the planet and on people, especially women and girls. More women die prematurely than men due to environmental degradation. Women face greater economic insecurity due to their reliance on threatened natural resources. And more women than men are displaced because of climate change. Increasingly, governments, development co-operation providers and international organisations are recognising this climate-gender nexus. The OECD Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) new declaration on climate recognises the “urgent need to support investments in adaptation and resilience that are nature positive, locally-led, inclusive, transparent and gender-responsive”.

This requires innovation and such efforts and investments need to be cognisant of women’s role and needs. Today, the discourse on innovation to address the climate crisis is heavily influenced by ‘techno-utopist’ perspectives and a widespread unwillingness to embrace one of the hardest part of innovation: to stop doing what shouldn’t be done anymore. Billions of dollars are flowing into green tech solutions such as carbon capture, hydrogen production and many other technologies which are nowhere near scale-ready. Historical examples of clean energy technology, such as solar photovoltaics or lithium-ion batteries, suggest that it takes from ten to thirty years to commercialise and reach scale.

Additionally, the lack of genuine engagement with Global South innovators, particularly women, is a widespread problem across aid-providing countries. For example, a mere 9% of inventors in climate change mitigation technologies are women. A 2019 assessment of innovation capabilities of member countries of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) found that a significant amount of investment focuses on ‘pushing’ innovations, mainly specific technologies, to low and middle-income countries, rather than drawing on local ideas and investing in strengthening local innovation and tech-production capabilities.

We at the OECD Innovation for Development Facility see two important ways through which innovation efforts can better address the gender-climate nexus. 

First, isolated investments in stand-alone technological solutions are not enough. Social and technological systems such as food, energy and transport are globally interconnected. The gendered effects of climate change are not technical but systemic. To address these, we need unprecedented transformation, as the IPCC’s 1.5 Degree Special Report  and this year’s World Environment Day #OnlyOneEarth campaign recognise. One way that we are exploring to create this kind of transformation is mission-oriented innovation, with a focus on low and middle-income countries. The concept is premised on the public sector taking an active role in convening and coordinating actors around complex, cross-sectoral issues that cannot be solved by individual actors, innovations or programmes alone. For example,  the governments of Nepal and Uganda have set mission goals with civil society partners on enhancing the access to contraceptives for women by 2030, supported by the Family Planning 2030 partnership.

Second, end users, particularly women and girls, need to be included in decision-making and innovation processes linked to investment. Innovations for climate action, particularly technological solutions, can have inequitable effects. Even low-tech interventions, such as adoption of irrigation technologies among rural women, remain narrowly implemented and unsustainable, mainly due to intra-household control over technology by men. Addressing the climate-gender nexus and its local specificities requires diverse and inclusive forms of innovation.

For instance, Health in Harmony reverses deforestation by meeting the health and economic needs of surrounding communities through women-led innovation in Indonesia. Through “radical listening sessions”, the initiative discovered that rampant illegal logging was due to local communities not being able to afford healthcare, relying on hardwood forests for money. The initiative identified contextual needs, engaged women at the forefront and achieved remarkable gains in both environmental and community health outcomes by adopting community designed solutions, including the provision of subsidised healthcare and sustainable agriculture training.

Localising investment in innovation not only means involving local and national actors in priority-setting, funding decisions, project design and implementation but it also requires  addressing pre-existing inequalities and redistributing various forms of power.

The massive potential of innovation in development cooperation can be unlocked through investing in testing and scaling locally led novel solutions that address climate and gender challenges, and supporting national and local governments with large-scale transformations.