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UK plan to use all-male team to host UN climate summit angers observers

The UK is fielding an all-male team to host a vital UN climate summit next year, flouting international norms and angering activists and observers, who say the lack of gender balance imperils progress on key issues.

All of the politicians who will host the Cop26 talks for the UK in Glasgow are men, from the business secretary Alok Sharma, who will act as president of the summit, to his team of climate and energy ministers – Lord Callanan, Zac Goldsmith and Kwasi Kwarteng – who have represented the UK in recent online meetings.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, will also take prominent roles in the conference, set for November 2021 after it was postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis. At Cop26, countries must come up with strengthened commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, if the goals of the landmark Paris agreement of 2015 are to be fulfilled.

The former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney leads on finance issues as UN envoy, and Nigel Topping, the government’s high-level climate action champion, is charged with bringing businesses onboard.

The leading negotiators and civil servants also form an all-male lineup, including the chair of the talks, Peter Hill, the lead negotiator, Archie Young, the envoy John Murton, and the Foreign Office official Nick Bridge.

Women are represented at a more junior level, working on some subsections of the negotiations, and among the scores of UK ambassadors and climate crisis attaches in embassies charged with liaising with foreign capitals ahead of the talks in November 2021. A government spokesperson said: “The UK is committed to championing diversity and inclusivity throughout our COP26 presidency, and our network of leaders, diplomatic representatives and expert voices reflect this in all of their work.”

The UK team was to have been led by the former Conservative MP and energy minister Claire O’Neill until she was abruptly sacked in February, days before the formal launch of the UK’s Cop26 presidency.

The absence of women in the top team was sharply criticised by leading figures and activists. Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the UK’s CBI employers’ organisation, said: “If ever there was a moment for real diversity in our leadership, this is it. So many communities are affected by [the climate crisis]. We need a team of all talents, and that must be diverse in all respects.”

The former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, twice a UN envoy on climate issues, said: “This diminishes the impact [the UK will have]. Gender divisions in climate are very significant. Having women in leadership is important to ensure these issues are enthusiastically taken up.”

Women in developing countries are among those worst and most immediately hit by climate breakdown, as they have fewer resources and fewer formal rights. A report this year by the IUCN found the climate crisis was fuelling violence against women around the world.

Muna Suleiman, aclimate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to suffer direct impacts of natural disasters and climate breakdown, yet are regularly shut out of the decision-making that’s supposed to change things. The UK needs to resolve this as it hosts the UN climate talks next year, but it’s already treading familiar ground as an old boys’ club where women are left off the top table.”

At the Cop26 talks, the only woman at the top table is likely to be the UN’s climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, with the outgoing president of last year’s talks, Chile’s environment minister Carolina Schmidt, playing a minor role. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, will welcome world leaders to the talks, but has no formal standing in the negotiations.

A spokesperson for Sturgeon said: “Women and girls around the world are on the frontline of the fight for climate justice, and the UK government’s implicit failure to acknowledge that speaks volumes about its own attitudes, although it is perhaps not surprising coming from a government which has made clear its intent to flout diplomatic and legal norms and to break international law.”

Youth activists in the Fridays for Future movement, prompted by Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, voiced their anger to the Guardian. “If women are not involved in planning nor decision-making, how likely is it that their interest will be represented?” said Pauline Owiti, of Kenya. “Effective climate action should bring everyone to the table while recognising the value of their knowledge and their potential as agents of change.”

Mitzi Tan, a youth climate striker in the Philippines, said: “I’m disappointed but I won’t say I’m surprised. Cop has never been a space where they listen to the people who are actually experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis. That’s why we keep yelling and striking on the streets.”

Aoife Mercedes Rodriguez-Uruchurtu, a 16-year-old activist from the UK, added: “Once again, we face the consequences of a society ruled by capitalist oligarchs and once again we, in particular women, are silenced.”

The UK already faces an uphill struggle at the talks, which were originally set for November this year. No formal negotiations have yet taken place, as the coronavirus crisis has put an end to face-to-face meetings on the many outstanding issues. The UK’s status as host has been damaged in the view of some observers by the government’s intention to break international law in the row over the EU withdrawal agreement. Several prominent veterans of the talks told the Guardian the UK’s decision to renege on an international treaty would be exploited by countries at the climate talks who are hostile to the Paris accord.

Previous UN climate talks have been notable for the decisive roles played by women. The chief French official and architect of the Paris agreement, signed in 2015, was Laurence Tubiana, working with the UN’s then climate chief, Christiana Figueres. The Copenhagen summit of 2009 was headed by Denmark’s environment minister Connie Hedegaard, who went on to lead the EU in subsequent talks as climate change commissioner, including a dramatic showdown in Durban in 2011 when three “lionesses” – Hedegaard, Figueres and South Africa’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane – kept alive hopes of an international agreement against determined opposition.

  • Additional reporting by Severin Carrell

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