How a new carbon standard seeks to benefit women worldwide

Women are the majority of the world’s farmers, yet carbon mitigation projects in agriculture and forestry are rarely designed in ways that benefit their economic and social status.

So says Jeannette Gurung, a Bangkok-based women’s development advocate whose group WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management) is trying to change that through the Women’s Carbon Standard. According to Gurung, no such standard currently exists for carbon projects or any other type of project that specifically addresses women.

“By and large, gender issues are not considered important to most climate change mitigation projects," Gurung said at the standard’s launch on Wednesday in San Francisco. “There are a number of projects out there -- for example, improved cookstoves -- [developed] without even a thought about how to improve women’s [status]. We wanted to see if we could use the carbon markets to benefit them.”

The Women’s Carbon Standard aims to boost project benefits in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time. It requires that a portion of the profits from carbon offset sales be channeled back to the women's community where the offset is based.

But despite its name, it’s really a social standard designed to measure outcomes benefiting women who participate in carbon mitigation projects.  

“We call it 'carbon' because we feel like there’s a market around carbon,” Gurung said,“but it can be used on all sorts of activities.”

The mitigation project must exhibit certain indicators in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time before it can achieve third-party verification. For example, has the project increased access to education and improved air quality? What about water quality? Has it increased community funds under women’s control?

Photo of Burmese field worker wearing thanaka powder (a natural sunscreen and cooling agent) provided by Dirk Ott via Shutterstock

Christiana Figueres, the head and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), expressed support. “This approach to set up a carbon standard that measures in six different categories the very concrete impact that mitigation projects can have is a very good way of making sure that those projects are really making a difference in the quality of life for women,” Figueres said at the launch event.

To illustrate how the standard would apply to improve women’s lives, Gurung said that the choice to install a biodigester to provide energy for a gas cookstove makes a big difference. Just the one decision to use a biodigester, she said, will result in a number of improved outcomes for women's well-being alone – not just reduce carbon emissions.

By stirring the contents of the biodigester a few times a day, gas is released up a pipeline to a kitchen stove.

“There’s no more smoke, there’s no more walking to the forest,” she said. “It relieves all those women from the drudgery of the fuel wood collection – something we see all over most of Africa and most of South Asia … The dependence on fuel wood for women means long work hours for women and health problems – respiratory problems and eye problems for those who have to work in smoky kitchens."

And less kitchen time means more free time for women to pursue education, community leadership or entrepreneurial activities. In some cases, men have started cooking once the household has access to biogas, according to Gurung -- an action representing a shift in traditional gender roles.

Figueres spoke about the need for women to be involved in the design and building of cookstoves used to replace open fire. When her daughter worked on a Clean Development Mechanism project in Guatemala, Figueres said, her daughter discovered that the first thing that needed to be done was “to get the women to be the builders of the stoves, and teach them how to maintain the stoves.” If the stoves didn’t work, she said, the stoves would be placed outside and open fire would return.

“If these women are given the entrepreneurial training to figure out how to build as a business, then now we have a very different type of leadership,” Figueres added.

The Women’s Carbon Standard was field tested in Western Kenya at an agroforestry project funded by SIDA, Sweden’s international development agency. WOCAN is also getting ready to launch three pilot projects using the standard in Laos (an improved cookstoves project), Cambodia (biodigester) and Vietnam (waste treatment) funded by the Asian Development Bank.

Gurung started developing the standard two years ago as a way to address the funding gaps she observed throughout her three decades of international development work with organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, CARE and the Peace Corps.

Gurung immersed herself in learning everything she could about the carbon market. She emerged determined that it could serve as an alternative system to provide social benefits and revenue to women around the world.

“After decades of attempts in influencing how those international aid allocations were made, it was high time to look for alternative ways to attend to the needs of those women,” she said.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have expressed interest in using the Women’s Carbon Standard, according to Gurung. 

“The IMF told me all of the investors that they deal with are calling for green investments, and if we can give them green plus women, we don’t have a single investor who won’t jump on that,” Gurung said.

Business has also expressed interest in using the standard. 

“We’ve had interest in companies we can’t name -- a company who flies your documents around the world and is offsetting your carbon,” she said. “We’ve also heard indications of interest from pension funds who use corporate social responsibility guidelines to make guidelines about who they buy their offsets from.”

WOCAN has not determined which company will provide third-party verification services, but Gurung reported that she has already met with energy and sustainability company DNV KEMA in regards to this task.