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Action to cut household carbon emissions could ‘unfairly burden’ women

Experts have warned the government it must not risk widening the gender gap with its advice on how to cut carbon emissions domestically.

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A report commissioned by the government said woman are more likely to balance household work and unpaid care, meaning they have fewer options about how they organise their days. Image: Pexels

Solutions to the climate crisis could “unfairly burden” women if the reality of their lives is not taken into account, the government has been warned.

The report was commissioned and published by Westminster – before being removed hours later – as part of a mammoth net zero strategy launch ahead of global climate summit COP26. Researchers found evidence that well-intentioned policies to cut the UK’s carbon emissions risk widening the gender gap.

The gendered division of household chores means women engage in more “energy-intensive” domestic work, such as vacuuming and using cooking appliances, according to the report.

And they are also more likely to be balancing other responsibilities including unpaid care, so policies pressuring people to change how they organise their lives – such as using the dishwasher less frequently, or doing laundry outside of morning “peak” time – could deepen this inequality.

“Domestic gender roles impact women’s time availability and flexibility,” researchers said. “Targeting energy [use] flexibility … impacts personal economy, leisure time and comfort.

“Women are often left with the additional mental workload of organising domestic work (the ‘third shift’) and this burden could be compounded through interventions targeting women.

“As they are often the primary caregivers, women with young children are further limited in their flexibility since activities such as cooking and eating, cleaning, laundry and bathing are primarily organised around the needs of the children, school and other structural routines.”

While the UK faces a major overhaul if it is to reach its net zero target by 2050, policies which exacerbate inequalities risk being rejected by the public and being ineffective, according to the study by the Carbon Trust.

Research into the impact of the climate crisis which looks beyond the gender binary is lacking, researchers added, with little work done to investigate how transgender and non-binary people could be affected.

People from marginalised and minority groups should be included in all decision making processes in the climate crisis effort if the transition to net zero is to be a success, researchers concluded.

They referred to Sweden’s Gender Equality Council for Transport, created after the country’s government recognised a need for women to have influence over the transport system, as the “gold standard”.

And though gender audits in government decision making could contribute to a more inclusive climate plan, the perceived lack of political will and ongoing commitment could pose a significant barrier to their effectiveness.

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“We need a whole systems approach for reducing our carbon emissions,” Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said.

The government’s latest net zero strategy work “highlights the intensive activity needed in the next decade – from early-stage research to deployment of mature technologies, through to better understanding on how to help people make greener choices.”

The study found other examples in how household finances are managed, meaning women are less likely to have a say in buying low-carbon technology such as electric vehicles.

This could add to existing inequalities in how women are able to get around, they added. While men are more likely to have a “simple, twice-daily” commute to and from work, women more often have to balance trips for work, childcare and household responsibilities, and travel with buggies or shopping.

This combined with personal safety concerns mean women are limited in their travel options in terms of the times they set off, the routes and their mode of transport, meaning climate-friendly transport systems must cater to their needs to “avoid placing additional burdens and responsibility on women” to change their behaviour.

Some women could avoid cycling instead of driving out of concern over unwanted attention or harassment, researchers said.

COP26 will be held in Glasgow starting at the end of this month. Boris Johnson will present other world leaders with the UK’s plan to end its contribution to the climate emergency, which will be “paved with well-paid jobs, billions in investment and thriving green industries” while “supporting people along the way”.

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