Climate Justice

All our campaigning is underpinned by climate justice principles. It is particularly important now, when so many are facing hardship here in the UK, that we recognise that the cost of living crisis here has the same roots as the climate crisis and other global issues such as the debt trap. International solidarity is as important as ever.


What is climate justice?

Climate justice is an approach which centres inequality and human rights in responding to the climate crisis. It encourages us to think clearly about the urgency of the crisis, where need is greatest, and who has the responsibility to act.

Key concepts in climate justice have been developed over decades, mainly by civil society in the Global South. Despite this campaigning, progress in adopting these principles in global climate negotiations has been extremely slow, because they run against the interests of the most powerful actors. Meanwhile global emissions have continued to rise, making the task of a fair and equitable solution ever harder.

On an international level, countries which have done least to cause climate change suffer worst from the impacts. Inequality also exists within countries. The emissions of the richest elites far outstrip the majority. And existing inequalities, such as gender, are reinforced by climate impacts. Climate justice is about recognising the interconnectedness of struggles and, in doing so, fighting for solutions to the climate crisis that not only reduce emissions but create a fairer and more just world in the process.

How climate justice has influenced UN negotiations, activism and climate litigation

'Safe limits'

Goals set in international climate negotiations have been driven by what is seen as politically acceptable, rather than by the actual impact that temperature rises would have. This led to the idea, widely maintained at least until the Paris climate agreement of 2015, that a rise of 2C in global average temperatures was some kind of 'safe limit'. This was thoroughly dismantled by the IPCC report on 1.5C warming in 2018.

Climate justice movements have always demanded that global warming be limited to the least physically possible (currently thought to be 1.5C) rather than politically derived targets. When 1C was still physically possible, climate justice movements called for limiting global warming to 1C warming. They pointed out the impacts (now being experienced) of only one degree of warming, and the dire consequences of 2C for the most vulnerable regions of the world.

Fair shares

Research by Oxfam estimated that between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10% of humanity accounted for 52% of cumulative emissions, of whom the richest 1% accounted for 15% of the total. Compared to this, the poorest 50% accounted for just 7% of cumulative emissions.

Many in rich nations such as the UK justify their low ambition by comparing our current emissions to countries like China and India, whose total annual emissions are currently high. This ignores important parts of the story, however: looking at emissions per capita, and historical responsibility.

Climate fair shares is a method of calculating what climate action should be taken, based on:

  • The remaining carbon budget – The total amount of greenhouse gases that may yet be emitted, globally, before we are most at risk of irreversible and accelerated change.
  • The responsibility of the country – Based on the total amount of greenhouse gases the country has already emitted.
  • The capability of that country – Based on that country’s existing resources, and their ability to act.
  • The country’s right to develop sustainably.

There is an additional complication. Some countries, including the UK, have already far exceeded their own carbon allowance. Even if those countries cut their emissions to zero, this effort would not meet what is required according to their fair share. Those countries should pay towards the costs of the energy transition in the Global South.

Loss and damage

Nations who have done least to cause the climate crisis are suffering most from it. This includes much of the continent of Africa, where countries in the Horn of Africa have suffered five consecutive failed rainy seasons, low lying nations such as Bangladesh and small island states which face being wiped out by rising sea levels. And many other areas affected by drought, hurricanes and climate impacts. Developing countries already face $70 billion a year costs for climate adaptation alone, and this is estimated to reach $140-300bn a year by 2030.

Even in richer countries, the poorest suffer disproportionately from climate disasters, which reinforce and deepen existing inequalities.

Those forced to leave their home by either sudden disaster, a changing climate eroding their livelihoods, or a combination of factors such as drought and conflict, often face an increasingly hostile environment for migrants. It is not richer countries which are hosting the majority of refugees globally, internal displacement is common, as is migration to neighbouring countries, which may face their own crises.

Compensation for loss and damage has been a key issue at international climate negotiations. At COP27, after decades of blocking by rich nations, a loss and damage fund was agreed for countries most affected by climate change to cover devastating impacts like flooding and drought, a major achievement in the negotiations by countries in the Global South. However there is not yet consensus on how it will be funded or who will benefit. Read more

Read more about climate disasters: recent events and the science of climate change and extreme weather

Debt and colonialism

European powers distorted the economies of colonised countries under their rule, transforming them into economies based on export commodities such as fossil fuels, metals and cash crops. They built economic power off the back of natural resources and labour in colonised countries. The consequences of this exploitation remain and is continued to this day. Many countries embarked on independence already saddled with debt owed to their former colonial rulers.

To develop, they took on further debt in a system already weighted against them. These loans did not necessarily benefit the countries which took them out - many were for pointless projects, but they did benefit lenders. From 1970-2022, Global South governments paid $2.5 trillion to creditors  in interest payments alone. When at risk of defaulting on loans, the World Bank and IMF stepped in, imposing harmful austerity policies.

Debt repayments continue to drain the economy of countries on the frontline of the climate crisis reducing their ability to develop without reliance on fossil fuels, to invest in measures to make them more resilient to climate damage and also to cope with current climate disasters. This became clearer than ever after the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022, leading to demands of debt cancellation.

In 2009, rich nations promised to deliver US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change and develop sustainably. But what funding has been given has overwhelmingly been as loans only, rather than grant funding, creating further debt. Oxfam estimated between just $21-24.5 billion as the “true value” of climate finance provided in 2020

Further reading on colonialism and debt

Debt for Climate campaign

‘Net Zero’ and carbon offsetting

Many countries and companies are making promises and setting targets to reach 'net zero' emissions. These are a serious concern because the term 'net zero' can be used for situations where carbon emissions are reduced to the minimum physically possible, with these accounted for by, e.g. local ecosystem restoration. Or for net zero targets several decades into the future as a means to avoid making real emissions cuts now, even increasing emissions. These require plans to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in the future to compensate, through means which are at best unrealistic, at worst dangerous. 

Some of the approaches would require huge amounts of land for new monoculture tree plantations in the Global South, leading to both ecological damage and eviction of those currently using the land. This may be through simple 'reforestation' but another approach which has been proposed is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The theory behind BECCS is that biomass crops capture carbon as they grow, and are burned in a power plant. Some of the energy created is used to recapture some of the carbon during burning. This carbon is then stored underground. But there are many unanswered questions that cast doubt on whether the technology would actually capture meaningful amounts of carbon, quite apart from the huge land demand for implementing it at scale.

The one thing that is certain about carbon offsetting is the greenhouse gas emissions that are being 'offset' - they are definitely contributing to the destabilisation of our climate. In contrast, 'negative emissions' or offsets are full of uncertainty. They may be delayed in time, waiting for example for trees to regrow. They may depend on technology which is not yet developed. They may exist only on paper. A study by the European Commission found that 85% of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce emissions. They may even be destroyed by climate impacts, such as forest fires

Not Zero: How 'net zero targets' disguise climate inaction

Briefing on BECCS

BECCS at Drax power station briefing

Ahead of COP26, we held an online webinar, in which three experts set out very clearly the problems with Net Zero - you can watch again here