The need for climate justice to take centre stage at COP26

Published on 28 October 2021

The expectation surrounding next week’s COP26 summit in Glasgow is intense, with the world waiting – and hoping – for international delegations to make progress on tackling climate change and fulfilling the promises made in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Researchers at IDS argue that now must be the time for social issues, and above all, climate justice to be addressed as a priority, if the crucial climate summit is to make any lasting impact.

Climate change and international development are critically linked, as reaffirmed by the new report published this week by the UK’s International Development Committee. IDS research across Asia and Africa has also shown that climate change is rooted in economic and social injustices that are often racial, gendered, class-based, and interconnected with a host of other issues relating to poverty and inequity. In these cases, climate change acts as a stress multiplier, making it vital that the causes of vulnerability are understood in order to fully address them and improve the lives of millions of people globally.

To achieve climate justice, and make lasting, sustainable progress towards tackling climate change and reducing its impacts, we believe there are five areas that world leaders must address for COP26 to be successful:

1. Prioritising adaptation in climate finance and acknowledging the links between adaptation and mitigation programmes

Climate finance is a crucial and contested issue for lower income nations, as highlighted by the recent reaction to the Climate Finance Delivery Plan. To achieve the greatest impact for the most vulnerable, climate finance should prioritise climate adaptation and ensure programmes are locally led and equity focused. Too many climate adaptation initiatives have been ‘top-down’ and designed without the participation of poor and marginalised populations. This risks creating ‘maladaptations’ that cause further harm to the vulnerable communities who are suffering the worst effects of climate change and have done the least to cause it. This will happen if the needs and livelihoods of these groups are not fully understood or reflected in the design of adaptation programmes. Therefore, any solutions and action generated needs to come from the ‘bottom-up’.

Going forward, the links must also be recognised between adaptation and mitigation because for climate change programmes to have lasting positive impacts they must integrate mitigation, adaptation and pro-poor development. Programmes that focus on mitigation alone and are implemented without the active engagement of local people can in fact cause unintended harms.  For example, establishing renewable energy parks as an alternative to fossil fuels, such as wind energy expansion in Mexico, can create further marginalisation for communities if they are not included in the design and set up. This marginalisation can be further exacerbated as resource commons are reallocated for these interventions – harming the vulnerable communities that often depend on these resources for their local livelihoods.

2. Loss and damage

There are also limits to adaptation. In several parts of the world, local communities are already experiencing irreparable and irreversible harm from climate change – through extreme and slow onset events – in the form of loss of lives, livelihoods, habitats, culture and biodiversity. The evidence of the devastating changes to our climate were evidenced in the recent IPCC report.

These impacts go beyond loss of assets and include non-economic loss and damage. For example, rising sea levels and climatic extremes are forcing vulnerable communities in the deltaic Sundarbans to migrate because their homes and farms are lost to the sea or increased salinity levels. This has threatened the identity and wellbeing of the islanders and is also leading to maladaptive practices such as distress migration and displacement pushing them into vulnerability and precarity. These ‘losses’ to culture, habitats and biodiversity cannot be addressed by traditional mechanisms of adaptation. The world leaders must urgently prioritise this issue of fair compensation and create financing mechanisms to help the most vulnerable.

3.Just transitions

As discussions at COP26 will turn to policies to transition away from high carbon economies, there is first a need for more research that follows low-carbon pathways along the supply chain. This research needs to identify the social and labour conditions and environmental impacts, and how best to manage them to address the need for a just transition. Although the energy sector is understandably getting a lot of attention, and to a lesser degree the transport sector (because of biofuels and increasing focus on aviation), there is important work to do across all sectors.

This includes sectors which most directly impact upon the livelihoods of the poorest, such as water, food and agriculture. For example, IDS research with pastoralists in the PASTRES project analyses how northern environmentalist discourses on dietary change and the push towards plant-based diets, based on (valid) concerns about the impacts of industrial meat production on emissions can potentially negatively affect low emission producing and marginalised livestock producers/pastoralists. This is argued in the recent report ‘Are livestock always bad for the planet?’.

4. Moving beyond technical ‘green’ solutions

As part of the COP26 agenda on reducing carbon emissions there has so far been a disproportionate focus on technical solutions. Such solutions, usually delivered from large-scale top-down initiatives, create a danger of causing further harms to marginalised communities. For meaningful and effective response, there is a need to move away from technical solutions alone, and towards people-centred, participatory processes and solutions, recognising the full range of lived-experience, ideas and knowledges.

For example, technical solutions of industrial scale wind, solar and nuclear energy all generate ‘green sacrifice zones’ – places and peoples harmed by the sourcing, transportation, installation, operation and disposal of waste products of ‘solutions’ for powering low-carbon transitions, green new deals and sustainable investment platforms. Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, is described as a ‘hell on Earth’ due to the environmental consequences of extracting and processing the rare earth minerals required to make wind turbines, solar photovoltaics and electric cars. The global supply chain for sheet mica, used in high voltage cables used to transport wind and solar power, also profits from the exploitation of whole families of miners in southern Madagascar, including children as young as four.

5. Targeting root causes of vulnerability for climate justice

Climate change should not be treated as a separate, standalone issue to be tackled via the COP26 summit. We know from research at IDS that climate change, and more specifically climate justice, and the impacts of climate change on people around the world cannot be separated from issues of poverty, from sanitation, education, water access, gender violence or food security – they are all connected.

In the UK, despite pledging funding for specific climate change initiatives, the overall funding cuts to UK ODA, including to programmes providing WASH facilities or girls education, for example, will have a devastating impact on the lives of poor and marginalised populations worldwide, directly increasing their vulnerability to climate impacts. Importantly, it has also affected the credibility of the UK in discussions leading up to COP26, and ultimately the ability of the COP to address challenges around climate change and development effectively. There can be no discussion of rights, risks and responsibility for climate change that does not employ, consciously or not, issues of justice.

Where these issues are not attended to, there is a very real danger of locking-in or deepening existing inequalities as the preferred ‘technical’ solutions of powerful institutions (such as carbon trading, nature-based solutions, or geo-engineering) are pushed through in a way that is harmful to local people living on the frontline of climate change.

Looking beyond COP26

During COP26 the media spotlight will be on the high-level negotiations in Glasgow and while we hope for ambitious commitments for action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees in the next two weeks, we must also make sure that the spotlight doesn’t dim in the months that follow.  For climate justice to be achieved and remain a priority, what happens at regional, national and local levels after COP26 will be even more important, to ensure that the much-needed action on climate change is taken with and not at the expense of poorer and marginalised groups. We must keep up the pressure to push for just climate action.


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