CEDAW Committee: German climate policy is not gender just


The Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) periodically reviews the extent to which state parties fulfil their due diligence obligations to protect women’s human rights. In this year’s review, it expressed concern that Germany’s climate and energy policies were violating the rights of women and vulnerable groups. The Committee called on the country to significantly ramp up gender equality measures in its climate change response.

Steinkohlekraftwerk München Nord aus der Ferne im Schnee
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Germany's increased coal imports led to the steady expansion of the largest coal mine in Latin America, El Cerrejón, with fatal consequences for the local population.

“Does the Federal Government recognise that non-compliance with the Paris Agreement and failure to meet the 1.5C target constitutes a violation of human and women’s rights under CEDAW?”


“What is the Federal Government prepared to do to meet its international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand and to implement the anti-discrimination convention on the other while adhering to a coherent national policy?”

The experts of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women posed unusual questions such as these to the German Federal Government during this year’s reporting procedure on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Yet these questions are not that unusual because they remind the Federal Government of its double obligation to exercise due diligence and of the particular impact that greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis can have on women and other vulnerable groups. What is unusual, however, is the UN umbrella of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) under which these interconnected issues have been raised: Are a recent increase in German coal imports and a transport policy that continues to favour car use an act of discrimination against women and an obstacle to equality of opportunity for all genders in and across Germany’s society?

The CEDAW Committee, one of ten UN treaty bodies, takes these links very seriously, so much so that in its concluding observations on the ninth periodic report, adopted at its 85th session in May 2023, it expressed concern for the first time that Germany’s climate and energy policies may constitute discrimination against women.

Climate change deepens gender inequality

Climate-induced extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and increasingly destructive. But the climate crisis is not gender neutral: Women and girls are high on the list of those who suffer from the loss of housing and farmland and the deterioration of communities. What’s more, they are disproportionately affected by the gaps in infrastructure and preparedness caused by floods, storms, fires, and drought in their local area.

They are the ones who are forced to do additional unpaid care and clean-up work due to the existing division of labour in society; and when they are resettled or displaced, they are also the ones who suffer from the already marked rise in gender-based violence. If left unchecked, climate change will significantly increase women’s vulnerability to poverty and hunger, thereby undermining hard-won development gains. UN Women projects that by mid-century, over 100 million more women and girls will be facing food insecurity, i.e. undernourishment and malnutrition, than men and boys.

Don’t neglect ecological due diligence: fossil fuel extraction harms local communities
Yet it is not just about gender-disaggregated data, which are lacking for the climate crisis. It is first and foremost about understanding the particular susceptibility and vulnerability of groups that are already socially discriminated against or economically marginalised. According to the sixth IPCC report, these vulnerable groups include especially women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPoC) from the countries of the Global South. However, it is not just climate change and the resulting landslides and crop losses that are destroying their livelihoods.

Another major factor is the extraction of fossil fuels – oil, coal, and fracked gas from countries like Colombia, Chile, and South Africa – which causes high greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time creating social and economic crises in local communities. Numerous studies show that not only does rapid industrialisation deepen the gender power gap, but women and ethnic minorities are excluded from decision-making on resource extractivism and find little gainful employment in the new industrial workplaces. Instead, women and girls face the sexualised violence and exploitation that often accompanies fossil fuel extraction.

Is Germany fulfilling its extraterritorial obligations to safeguard women’s human rights?

Germany’s economic interests – including efforts to avert an energy crisis – do indeed pose a challenge to the international human rights of women and Indigenous communities. A good example is German coal imports, which increased more than two and a half times in 2022 over the previous year. The EU’s growing demand and Germany’s hunger for energy led to the continuous expansion of El Cerrejón, Latin America’s largest coal mine. This has resulted in ecosystem loss and a health and environmental crisis in the Wayúu territory, as well as in a growing threat to the Indigenous people and the local environmental activists who want to protect their livelihoods – who here, as in many other affected regions, are primarily women.

When specific cases such as that of the Colombian coal mine – usually brought to light by non-governmental organisations – prove that the human rights of women protected under CEDAW are threatened in the environmental sector, the CEDAW Committee appeals to the respective duty bearer to comply with its extraterritorial obligations. For example, it states in its concluding observations on Germany’s report under the CEDAW Convention that it is

“concerned […] about the increased use of coal-fired electricity, despite the government pledge to phase out use of coal by 2030.”

However, with respect to “gender and climate change”, the Committee does not stop at this observation, but calls on the state party to accelerate its reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and use of fossil fuels.

High priority given to gender and climate change: Committee doesn’t just make recommendations, but calls for action

It is remarkable that the Committee urges Germany to implement measures regarding gender and climate change, as the entire final document on this year’s review of the Federal Government only contains – as is generally the case – recommendations for further steps that the government should take to ensure anti-discrimination policies are in place. The fact that the CEDAW Committee uses a sharper tone here – similar to that of the non-governmental organisations – and calls for action against climate-damaging CO2 emissions shows, on the one hand, the importance attached to the issues of women’s human rights and climate change. On the other hand, it also reflects the high expectations placed on an industrialised country with high CO2 emissions, which is seen as having an obligation to share responsibility for global climate change.

This is because Germany is not only a signatory to CEDAW, but also to the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. It has set itself targets through so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which include reducing domestic emissions by at least 65 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, Germany would have to immediately cut domestic emissions by 70 percent if it were to comply with the 1.5C limit set by the Paris Agreement.

German economic and energy policies lack coherence

In the regular hearing procedure that gives civil society an opportunity to comment on state reports, feminist environmental organisations from Germany drew the attention of the CEDAW Committee to the fact that new provisions of the Federal Climate Protection Act, especially those pertaining to the transport sector, will further delay the transition to not only a sustainable but also a more inclusive and gender-just mobility. The provisions had been agreed shortly beforehand by the German government’s coalition committee.

These civil society organisations are calling for a more ambitious climate protection policy that is coherent in terms of both domestic and foreign policy so that the right to a safe, clean, and sustainable environment is guaranteed for all people. This includes, in particular, a gender-just European energy policy, as women are disproportionately affected by growing energy poverty. Many female-headed households in Europe are faced daily with the decision to “eat or heat”. Another key issue in terms of Germany’s due diligence obligations is the provision of the best possible protection for female environmental journalists and human rights defenders, who are at risk at home and abroad due to their criticism of German economic projects.

A stronger link needed between gender equality and climate change – in both domestic and foreign policy

Due to the large number of gender equality and anti-discrimination issues in a country, the CEDAW Committee can address specific issues in the area of climate policy only to a limited extent. This makes it all the more significant that the Committee called on the Federal Government to create a stronger link

“between gender equality and foreign and domestic climate change legislation and policies to meet the specific needs of women and girls disproportionately affected by climate change.”
This includes, among other things, Germany’s sustainability strategy, which is very weak in terms of gender equality, and the aforementioned Climate Protection Act. The Federal Government is also urged to increase the participation of women and girls in decision-making processes concerning climate change and disaster risk mitigation. This refers, for example, to the consistent implementation of the official feminist foreign and development policy.

Gender mainstreaming, from the UNFCCC to climate finance

Since the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, feminist environmental organisations and gender experts from development policy institutions have been campaigning for gender-just climate policies at the annual climate conferences (Conference of the Parties, COPs). They are still fighting for the equal participation of women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPoC) groups in climate negotiations and for their rights and interests to be taken into account, especially concerning climate financing.

The adoption of the Lima Action Agenda in 2014 and of gender action plans for its implementation have led to great strides being made towards gender mainstreaming in climate negotiations.

The establishment of a financial fund – co-supported by Germany – to protect the most vulnerable from climate loss and damage is certainly another achievement for which the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC) can take credit. As one of the nine official stakeholder groups of the UNFCCC, the WGC is working to ensure that women’s rights and gender equality are incorporated in all processes and outcomes of the climate change convention.

The climate movement should use all UN treaty bodies

The successes of environmental, women’s, and human rights NGOs are the result of decades of advocacy work, and they were achieved through tough negotiations under the umbrella of the UNFCCC. However, because of the progressing climate crisis and the growing social inequality between the genders, such civil society actors need to take advantage of additional platforms and opportunities to urge UN member states and governments to fulfil their due diligence obligations more quickly and rigorously – both in the climate and environmental sectors and in terms of ensuring equal opportunities and the protection of women’s human rights.

Therefore, women’s environmental organisations should also use other human rights conventions and the associated consultation processes to draw attention to the many violations of women’s rights caused by climate change and exacerbated by the economic and energy policies of state parties.

The CEDAW Committee of the United Nations made it clear in the hearing and in its concluding observations on the German Federal Government’s implementation of the anti-discrimination convention that it attaches high importance to protecting women and girls disproportionately affected by climate change.

“Women” and “girl” are understood by the author as a non-binary, inclusive social category that encompasses all people who feel their gender identity fits this description, including trans or inter people.