Low-income and otherwise disadvantaged people could benefit enormously from climate action — enjoying everything from cheaper clean energy to healthier lives. Yet these groups face the greatest barriers to access these benefits. This is according to a new WRI working paper that reviews the impacts of priority climate measures in six sectors: industry, energy, transport, cities, agriculture and forestry.

If designed with equity concerns in mind, major investments and innovative solutions to help mitigate and build resilience to climate change could bring the greatest gains to communities that are most impacted by disasters and pollution.

Such gains include access to better health, energy, water, transport, and decent jobs, as well as affordable cost of living and political, social and cultural participation — all major factors for human development. Bringing equity to the forefront of climate action could therefore help reduce social inequality.

Person sleeps in Dhaka Bangladesh
A person sleeps in Dhaka, Bangladesh. If climate actions are designed with equity in mind, they can help improve access to decent jobs, as well as affordable cost of living, reducing inequality. Photo by Muhammad Amdad Hossain/Flickr 

But a lot of the time, this is not what happens. Low-income and disadvantaged communities often face a “triple injustice”: though they contribute least to greenhouse gas emissions and are most vulnerable to climate change impacts, they also often benefit least from climate actions and bear the brunt of social costs. This includes being disproportionately displaced by green infrastructure and climate adaptation projects, deprived access to their livelihoods by conservation projects, and having more expensive transport costs because of carbon taxes.

How to Ensure Climate Action Advances a Just, Zero-carbon Future

Here are seven ways that climate action can prevent worsening inequalities — and make a zero-carbon world a fairer one:

1) Acknowledge Unequal Distribution of Costs and Benefits Across Society

Policymakers like to talk about “win-wins” for climate and people, assuming that gains such as employment and health will be universal. However, in doing so, they often oversimplify the issue and sidestep political choices about existing inequality and the redistribution of costs and benefits. For example, climate-smart agriculture practices will cut costs of fertilizers and pesticides while improving soil quality and yields — but only after years of upfront investments, which many farmers cannot afford.

Experience shows that in the absence of an explicit goal for social equity, gains are often out of reach for the least well-off. Like any other type of policy, climate actions are designed in the context of existing socioeconomic and power structures that currently maintain inequality.

For example, unequal representation in decision-making, along with biased enforcement of land-use regulations, explains why sustainable infrastructure projects often underserve deprived areas and disproportionately relocate poor residents to areas where quality of life may worsen.

This is evident in the flood mitigation interventions that have displaced many worldwide — including cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh, Manila in the Philippines, and New Orleans in the United States — while private property development has surged along vulnerable waterfronts, flood flow zones, and floodwater retention areas. Green infrastructure and urban greening projects designed to make cities more resilient can also be captured by solely profit-seeking motivations, such as real estate development.

Ensuring a just transition that will leave no-one behind requires planners of climate measures to stop viewing social equity as simply a potential “co-benefit.” Social equity cannot be a secondary goal; proactively prioritizing underserved groups must be a central element in the design of climate initiatives.

WRI’s Just Transition and Equitable Climate Action Resource Center provides inspiring examples from around the world where more proactive efforts are underway to help workers and communities transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy.

For example, Morocco’s Noor Solar Power Station project set clear targets to ensure local hiring and social benefits, including a requirement that 30% of the station’s raw material, basic equipment and manufacturing components be purchased from local businesses.

2) Stop Making Climate Change Policies that Ignore the Most Vulnerable

In the urgency to scale climate measures as quickly as possible, national and local governments pursue priorities that can leave the least well-off behind. Incentives promoting the uptake of low-carbon technologies, for example, often target the biggest emitters, deepening unequal access the newest, most effective and cleanest goods and technologies. Investments in climate-resilient and low-carbon infrastructure are also usually cheaper and more efficient in the most populated and economically valuable regions, rather than in remote and sparsely populated rural areas.  

In addition, the introduction of the most effective green and resilient technologies — including electric vehicle infrastructure, urban parks and buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency — can raise the costs of goods and housing.

Some local authorities are starting to proactively plan to make sure that new additions like these don’t increase property prices and price out long-term residents — a process called “green gentrification.” Take the Atlanta Beltline in the U.S. state of Georgia, a green belt with new parks and activities, which included targets for local job creation and social housing and tailored the development of green amenities to the needs of the underserved in certain neighborhoods.

Planting mangroves in Timor-Leste
Planting mangroves in Timor-Leste. Strong gender equality and anti-discrimination policies are essential to ensure marginalized communities can access climate-smart solutions and their benefits. Photo by Yuichi Ishida/UNDP Timor-Leste

3) Engage with Marginalized Groups

Fair climate actions largely rest on including the voices of disadvantaged groups in decision-making and, whenever possible, letting them make choices on measures that affect their lives. Three main obstacles are reported across sectors:

  • A top-down approach that favors “expert” opinion and disregards local knowledge;
  • A power-blind approach using business-as-usual consultations ignoring power asymmetries;
  • A one-size-fits-all approach that fails to consider the specific constraints and needs of disadvantaged groups to access decision-making (including digital poverty).

Certain democratic innovations help empower those whose voices are usually unheard in climate policy planning. In Senegal, Ghana and Uganda, for example, citizens’ deliberation processes have provided briefing materials to residents, enabling communities with high illiteracy rates to design robust proposals for resident relocation after flooding, as well as more sustainable use of natural resources.

All around the world, low-carbon and resilient solutions that shift power back to local people — including distributed renewable energy, shorter supply chains, and local circular economies — can also enable more decentralized, community-led decision-making while enhancing social ties.

4) Conduct Impact Assessments to Learn How Climate Projects Can Affect Communities

There are several common flaws in impact assessments performed for climate projects. These include an assumption that co-benefits commonly associated with climate measures are present, a failure to analyze how benefits are distributed, and a focus on a select few economic variables that overlook a wide range of other social and cultural impacts.

Thorough equity impact assessments go beyond co-benefit and do-no-harm approaches to social impacts and identify the barriers — such as social norms and limited access to technology — that can prevent disadvantaged groups from enjoying opportunities. They can involve withdrawing some harmful measures, revising others, and making corrections that can offset harm and remove barriers. These measures usually combine policy, fiscal and financial instruments (from discounted fares to capacity-building) and target the most affected groups (by using methods like eligibility criteria).

Impact assessments of energy efficiency programs in the U.S. and Europe, for example, show they tend to mainly benefit high- and middle-income households who own their houses, can afford upgrades, and have good access to information. These barriers often prevent retrofit opportunities from being accessible to those suffering from poorly insulated homes and soaring energy bills. Corrective measures that help remove these barriers include proactive area- and income-based targeting, support for tenants, and one-stop-shop models that allow residents to access multiple services in one place, therefore making it as easy as possible for them to access programs. 

Three approaches to social benefits in climate policy planning

5) Collect Data on Those Left Behind

Collecting disaggregated data by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics (Sustainable Development Goal 17.18) is a prerequisite for differentiated impact assessment. But such data collection remains a challenge for most countries and requires more investment. This data gap can hinder the design of interventions that fit the needs of vulnerable groups.

For instance, analyses of beneficiaries of “pay as you go” mechanisms for solar energy services in a growing number of countries across Africa, show that users in rural areas are typically employees, farmers and business owners, and greater flexibility is needed to reach the poorest customers.

6) Target Funding at the Underserved Communities that Need It Most

Climate action in underserved neighborhoods and remote rural areas can entail higher upfront costs for local authorities and communities. The mobilization of adequate funds can be challenging due to scarce public finance and a reliance on private actors who prefer short-term return on investments.

However, solutions exist. Sustainable agriculture projects provide some promising ideas to emulate whereby a wide range of financial tools are leveraged to help low-income farmers adopt practices that may mean yield and income losses in the short term. These tools include cash transfers, community rotating savings and credit associations, microfinance institutions, and crop insurance that reduce financial risks.

Conscious planning to allocate resources to disadvantaged populations can also be better mainstreamed and climate finance instruments can be adjusted to ensure social equity. For instance, revenues of green fees can be earmarked for underserved areas and equity criteria used to access green bonds.

Innovative funding models such as environmental impact bonds are mainly tested in high-income countries but have potential to be scaled up more widely. In any case, national and local governments and communities have an important role to play to guide private investments toward underserved populations.

Workers carry solar panels in Manila, Philippines.
Workers carry solar panels along a street in Manila, Philippines. Certain proactive efforts can help workers and communities transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy. Photo by IMF Photo/Lisa Marie David

7) Coordinate with Other Policy Areas

Climate action is part of a much larger tapestry of policies that must be looked at together to ensure social equity. The lack of policy coherence and coordination across agencies and levels of governance can reduce or even cancel out the benefits that climate interventions could generate for low-income and disadvantaged groups.

It is well recognized that strong gender equality and anti-discrimination policies are essential to tackle discriminatory social norms and keep women and marginalized communities from accessing climate-smart solutions and their benefits. Likewise, policies that empower Indigenous peoples and secure their tenure rights can enable better engagement in forest protection and achieve greater outcomes for both the climate and communities.

Fair Climate Action Requires Major Policy Shifts

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WRI’s experts are closely following the UN climate talks. Watch our Resource Hub for new articles, research, webinars and more.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed millions of people further into poverty, it is clearer than ever that we need to address the climate crisis and the social crisis simultaneously. Ensuring fair climate actions requires major shifts in business-as-usual climate planning processes, and the building blocks we have outlined may require countries to revise their guidance on developing climate policies.

For more tools to help policymakers improve how they address social justice in climate action, take a look at the WRI paper “Achieving Social Equity in Climate Action: Untapped Opportunities and Building Blocks for Leaving No One Behind.”