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How Sustainability Efforts and Women’s Advancement Globally Can—and Must—Go Hand-in-Hand

Friday, June 28, 2019

Cindy Starrett

Partner, Latham & Watkins LLP

Kristina Wyatt

Global Commercial Transactions Senior Counsel Senior Manager, Sustainability Programs, Latham & Watkins LLP

Jennifer Roy

Associate, Latham & Watkins LLP

Samantha Seikkula

Associate, Latham & Watkins LLP

Melanie Hess

Summer Associate, Latham & Watkins LLP

Climate change threatens to dramatically increase inequality and create greater hardships for women and girls, in large part because of their disproportionately vulnerable economic, social, and political positions worldwide. Food shortages disproportionately affect the health of women and girls, and in many regions, women are more directly dependent on natural resources threatened by climate change for their livelihoods. For instance, a U.N. report observed that in developing countries, women account for 45-80% of all food production, and about two-thirds of the female labor force is engaged in agricultural work. In such developing regions, women face unique vulnerabilities from the increasing unpredictability of food sources as well as the loss of income or jobs if agricultural resources are impacted by climate change.

Empowering women to participate in the green economy will bolster the position of vulnerable groups and ultimately build a more effective and sustainable way to combat climate change. For example, Women Deliver, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for women worldwide, notes: “Given their traditional roles in agricultural production, and as the procurers of water, cooking fuel, and other household resources, women are not only well suited to find solutions to prevent further degradation and adapt to the changing climate—they have a vested interest in doing so.” Women consumers of household products are more likely than men to buy recyclable, eco-labeled, and energy-efficient products. Accordingly, financing tools and strategies for agriculture, food preparation, and education have an outsize impact on combating climate change.

Innovative legal ideas, including pro bono representation of important nonprofit organizations, can help alleviate the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and empower them as leaders in sustainable development. For example, women are often underrepresented in transboundary water management. ELI has been working with the Stockholm International Water Institute and the Women & Water Diplomacy Network to connect and provide capacity training for women working with transboundary water issues in the Nile Basin. In addition, Latham & Watkins has assisted with and developed several different initiatives with its clients and partner organizations, aimed at empowering women while combatting the impacts of climate change. Several of these initiatives are discussed in greater detail below. 

Strategies to address climate-related problems, such as desertification and famine, may also become opportunities to improve gender equality. Indoor air contamination from wood-burning stoves leads to illness for impoverished women across the world. As the primary preparers of food, women are tasked with gathering increasingly scarce wood and fuel through onerous and at times unsafe journeys, and then must burn unclean fuel sources in homes without proper ventilation.

Latham & Watkins client FivePoint recently secured approval of its innovative “Net Zero Newhall” program to achieve zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for one of the largest master-planned communities ever proposed in California. Through this commitment, FivePoint will address indoor air contamination from “three-stone” stoves, which produce large quantities of air pollutants that pose major health issues for women and children in rural villages in Africa, while reducing GHG emissions. Working with local groups, FivePoint is enabling the construction by villagers of thousands of more fuel-efficient stoves. The new stoves require less wood, produce more heat, and reduce GHG emissions and hazardous pollutants. The stoves improve key health vectors for families and help FivePoint mitigate its GHG emissions.

Similarly, the growing lack of access to water due to climate change disproportionately affects women and girls, who are usually tasked with gathering water. The Samburu Project, a Latham & Watkins pro bono client, raises money to build wells in Africa. In the Ntilal and Lolgerdad villages, constructing a well created a ripple effect in these local communities by allowing the women and girls of the village to become active in a local artisan community and, importantly, to attend school. Fostering these organizations and programs helps to ensure that women have the means and the opportunity for educational and professional advancement, and that local job creation is an equalizing opportunity for women as much as men.

Finally, empowering women to participate in economic development itself turns sustainability causes and climate change into opportunities to put women on the “front line” as leaders of these efforts. Organizations operating at local and global levels are enabling—and relying on—women to lead the charge by ensuring participation in the creation of the “green economy” as business owners and policy influencers. For instance, Latham partners with its pro bono client Kiva to provide microloans to entrepreneurs globally in an effort to alleviate poverty. In recent years, each of Latham’s summer associates, as well as each member of Latham’s Recruiting and Pro Bono Committees, received a credit to make a one-time loan to a Kiva borrower. Kiva aids many women’s organizations in the developing world, ensuring they receive the necessary financing tools, and in turn empowering female entrepreneurs and sustainable organizations. Such investments have the added benefit of introducing sustainable practices into society and bolstering local economic ecosystems.

Investing in women and supporting their participation in sustainability efforts are key to effectively combatting climate change and developing a robust green economy. Innovative legal ideas can make changes in the developing world that mitigate global climate change while promoting sustainability and gender equality.