Putting climate justice at the heart of net zero

Published on 27 September 2021

Gerardo Torres Contreras

PhD research student

Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Wei Shen

Research Fellow

What does net zero actually involve and who does it impact? IDS researchers highlight the cost to groups carrying the burden of decarbonisation and argue that pathways to achieving net zero targets must be just, fair and equitable. If not, they risk making the situation even worse for those suffering the most from climate change.

Across the globe, the effects of climate change are increasingly becoming frequent, widespread and more ‘visible’. From  wildfires in Athens, floods in Germany, China and India, drought in Mexico, the world has entered a phase of extreme weather events driven by rapid global warming. The message is loud and clear, countries need to cut down on Green House Gas (GHG) emissions rapidly and effectively. In this context, net-zero is increasingly emerging as a strong narrative to simplify the climate crisis in order to make it manageable.

Currently 55 countries have committed or are on their way to commit to net zero targets in law, in proposed legislation, or policy documents. Committing to targets is easier and is a welcome sign but ensuring that these pathways adhere to principles of justice, fairness and equity is critical. Translation of global obligations into concrete actions within the situated contexts of developing countries make these justice implications even more profound, and we must not lose sight of these.

What is net zero?

Net zero is the point where any residual emission of greenhouse gases are balanced by practices like tree planting, using carbon removal technologies (direct air capture or bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or renewable technologies like wind and solar to replace fossil fuel dependence.

Net zero may lapse into a technical fix

Net zero relies on two key solutions: first, the rapid deployment and widespread use of technologies such as hydrogen-based fuels and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Sadly, in most cases these are not available yet. As the IEA (International Energy Agency) highlights in its 2021 flagship report, by 2050 more than half of GHG reductions are due to come from technologies that are currently only at prototype or demonstration phase, which might not become a reality. Questions around technology access and transfer to developing countries remain unanswered. Second, the impacts of these technologies across the globe will be critical. For example, for BECCS along, the land required is estimated to be around 500 million hectares. That is around one-third of the world’s currently cultivated land area.

The ‘great’ promise of net zero can easily lapse into burn now and pay later. In several cases, for instance, scholars have documented how biofuel plantations produce a series of social, environmental and health impacts among local communities, including water pollution, soil degradation and financial hardship for marginalised populations. It is also noted that low carbon technologies are increasingly associated with internet technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Big Data (such as autopilot EV or ‘smarter’ building), with significant geo-political implications when leading countries are competing for the commanding heights.

Social costs of net zero

Several studies have demonstrated how the so-called ‘green’ solutions often rely on dispossessing people from their homes and exacerbate inequalities along the lines of class, gender or ethnicity. Land areas deemed ideal for climate mitigation technologies are usually referred to as wastelands, highlighting the low productive levels of agricultural activities and livelihood strategies to dispossess communities whose livelihood strategies often rely on those lands. For example, during the 2008-2013 Mexican wind rush, the General Director of the Federal Electricity Commission stated that ‘in the space that was considered as idle land, now we will have a forest of windmills producing energy’. This narrative has been vital in disbanding communal forms of land ownership and enhancing a slow transition of the area into private property.

Similarly, in India, land appropriation in the name of mitigation is gaining prominence. For example in Kutch (western India), which is being developed as a wind energy exploitation zone, farmers and herders have been protesting because wind energy turbines restrict their access to forest and resources on which these communities depend. The social, economic and ecological impacts of climate change mitigation technologies are borne by marginalised sections across and within communities, according to place-based structural inequalities.

As these technologies expand across the globe, they enable winners and losers along the lines of gender, class and ethnicity. While certain groups are able to capitalise from energy transitions taking place at the local scale, some other groups carry the burden of decarbonisation. In the case of wind energy expansion in Mexico, large landholders leasing land to energy companies have been able to diversify their income, and small landholders are subject to pauperisation, as they are barely able to combine wind power with secondary activities like farming or tourism.

Along the same lines, solar expansion in India has resulted in the creation of a surplus of landless populations who are unable to be absorbed into wage employment. It is important to analyse the construction of green sacrifice zones where certain communities will be disproportionately affected by the costs of decarbonisation.

Rapid decarbonization requires addressing the political economy of ‘solutions’

Under net zero goals, countries and individuals can still emit if these are offset in equal terms by practices or technologies. Policy choices ranging from energy systems transition, tree planting, bioenergy crops, more efficient heating to promoting behavioral changes like reducing meat and dairy consumption are essentially political decisions, among which less powerful groups’ emissions or pollutions are likely to be targeted first.

In addition, mitigation options with positive economic values or accumulation potential are likely to be elevated in the policy agenda. For example, experts in China are warning that the announcement of China’s net zero target by 2060, though a very significant achievement for its climate strategy, may bear the risk of shifting the focus from curbing emissions from fossil fuel industries to promoting reforestation, particularly with mixed crops plantation to create economic profits. In the past decades, such massive reforestation programmes are suspected of contributing to the biodiversity and animal habitat loss within China, which has led to the unprecedented elephant migration in its Yunnan province earlier this year.

While climate mitigation should remain at the centre for emissions reduction efforts, it is important to provide safety nets for those carrying the burden of decarbonisation through transformative action.

Net-zero needs transformative action

Transitions mediated mainly through technological innovation, towards a particular known end (transport, smart cities, renewable energy for that matter) can easily sideline questions of justice. Transformations however address wider innovations around social practices, social distribution, structural and institutional power, as they are more concerned about empowerment, agency and adaptive capacity of systems and for individuals.

They may not be limited to providing energy access or mitigation outcomes but also focus on how these pathways enable fair futures for the marginalised sections who are most at risk when it comes to the effects of climate change and lack voice in determining the paths and outcomes of these transitions. At the same time,  a transformative approach can also challenge disparities between countries in terms of carbon accountinggreenwashing while promoting the phasing out of fuel production as well as democratic and decentralised renewable energy alternatives.

Commitments and decisive actions on net-zero emissions are essential and badly required. However, policymakers must ensure that rights and livelihoods of the most vulnerable are not undermined. Low energy transitions must be seen as an opportunity to disrupt structural power imbalances so that transformative climate justice can be achieved.


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