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What is climate justice?

At a demonstration in London people carry a banner reading "climate justice now"
Reuters/Henry Nicholls
What does climate justice look like?
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter

Published

If there is one message coming out loud and clear from this week’s COP26 meeting—thanks to the activists and protesters who took to the streets of Glasgow—it’s that the world needs climate justice.

But what is climate justice? The data shows what it is not.

The poorest 50% of the world, those most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, was responsible for just 7% of global greenhouse emissions between 1990 to 2015, according to research by Oxfam, an international nonprofit focused on poverty reduction. Yet the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for more than half. Since the start of the industrial revolution, in 1751, the countries that are now the US and the European Union have generated 47% of the world’s total carbon emissions, while combined, all of Africa and South America produced just 6%.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions, will likely suffer the most from the consequences of climate change, which has already caused displacement and might soon lead to conflict over depleted resources.

Climate justice has evolved from a concept to a movement to address what can be described as climate inequality, or the disparity between who is causing the climate crisis, and who is paying the steepest price for it. Those demanding climate justice don’t just want polluting countries to change their ways—they want them to pay for the damage they have caused, and will continue to cause, as the effect of their past behaviors are felt on the planet.

What are the principles of climate justice?

There are three main pillars of climate justice, says Oxfam’s CEO Danny Sriskandarajah, and the reduction of emissions and getting to “net zero”—the part governments are working to agree upon—is just the first. 

The second essential element of climate justice is better, and more substantial climate finance. According to the 2015 Paris agreement, rich countries were supposed to raise $100 billion a year to invest in climate technology and to mitigate the impact of emissions, paying for a portion of it proportional to their responsibility. Not only was the goal not reached, but it also represented only a fraction of what the world needs in terms of climate investment—more than $4 trillion by 2030. Most of the money now going to countries to develop climate technologies is given out as loans rather than grants, perpetuating cycles of debt.

Finally, the world needs to come to a consensus on the concept of “loss and damage.” This isn’t something countries have agreed to before. The idea is the nations that caused the damage shouldn’t just invest in mitigating the consequences but in outright compensating the countries impacted. Although the ultimate tool might be similar to climate finance—a transfer of cash—the principle is different, as this would be reparations of sorts.

“Only now we’re starting to see that some rich countries acknowledge that this is an important part of the conversation…but we’re not seeing anywhere near the actions we need,” says Sriskandarajah.

If this principle was accepted, a country like the US would owe as much as $2 trillion for loss and damages, though the conversation on this is still very preliminary. At this point, says Sriskandarajah, it would be considered a success even just to make the concept of loss and damage and discussions on how to address it a mainstay of future COP negotiations.

But that’s precisely what activists don’t want, as they see climate change meetings like COP as too incremental and ineffective in delivering the kind of dramatic change that would be required to tackle climate change, as well as deliver justice to those paying for it most.

“It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place,” said Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, at a protest in Glasgow.

Poor countries have limited power in making sure climate justice is pursued. Hopeful activists emphasize the global element of the crisis, and the awareness that countries need to work together to find a solution. “We are truly in this together,” says Sriskandarajah. 

Yet the last time the world faced a global threat that it should have tackled as one—the covid-19 pandemic—what resulted was something the UN has described as “vaccine apartheid:” Rich countries are offering their populations booster shots and incentives to get vaccinated, while low-income countries are still struggling to get their vaccines. The percentage of the vaccinated population in much of the developing world is still in the low single digits—which even resulted in some poor countries’ delegates being unable to travel to Glasgow to have an actual seat at the table

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