Equity & Equality

Image of school children protesting in Germany at a Friday for the Future strike. © Jörg Farys / Fridays for Future.

What is a just transition to a net zero world?

When considering pathways to achieving global net zero emissions, it is essential that questions of equity and justice frame our conversations. Justly transitioning to a net zero future requires the inclusion of all people and should acknowledge the moral and ethical arguments of climate justice. It is crucial that international emissions policy distinguishes between the role of developed and developing nations in contributing to climate change through both a historical and contemporary lens. By equally valuing the ideas of all people and communities, but not forgetting the differential impacts of climate change on people of varying identities and geographical positions, a just transition can ensure an equitable, inclusive net zero world.

Framing Emissions Responsibilities

Who should be responsible for reducing emissions and by how much are major questions in contemporary climate policy. Various frameworks for measuring global emissions produce different answers to these questions:

Historical vs. Contemporary Emissions

  • Emissions relate to economic development. In an equitable world, each country would have a share of possible global emissions proportional to their population to develop at an equal rate to other nations. This has not happened, leading to economic inequality across the world.
  • Developed countries have historically taken a larger share of emissions, allowing them to develop at a greater rate. While developing countries are most rapidly increasing their emissions today, the historical emissions of developed nations far outweigh these increases.
  • Time matters. Efforts to reduce emissions now are essential, but forgetting the past exasperates the reality of global economic inequality. Including the costs of adaptation (along with emissions reductions) within the responsibility of developed countries helps establish a just accounting of historical emissions.
Though China currently emits more CO2 than any other nation in the world (around 27% of global emissions in 2017), the United States is responsible for 25% of global cumulative emissions, twice the amount of China’s historical emissions share. 

Luxury vs. Survival Emissions

  • Survival emissions: emissions necessary for the pursuit of subsistence and the activities required to live a healthy life.
  • Luxury emissions: emissions generated from non-essential activities, such as driving high-emitting cars or frequently flying.
  • In an equitable transition to net zero, luxury emissions would be tackled first, so that survival emissions make up the remaining share of ongoing emissions in a low-carbon world. This would allow poorer regions to develop, while also ensuring that luxury emissions are decarbonised among the wealthy classes across the world.

Equitable Concerns on the Pathways to Global Net Zero

Displacement and Exclusion of Indigenous Communities

While the rapid development of global renewable infrastructure is necessary for achieving net zero, concerns of community displacement have arisen. There are a growing number of examples of the displacement of indigenous communities as a result of “green development” projects, particularly in South Asia and Africa

The exclusion of indigenous knowledge and perspectives has also been witnessed in a number of carbon offsetting ventures. Quick carbon sequestration solutions that fail to consult indigenous communities or environmental experts (such as monoculture plantations) weaken biodiversity and lead to unintended psychological, social and economic consequences on local communities.

Environmental Racism

Climate justice intersects with other major systems of inequality and injustice in our world, including global racism. Access to environmental resources, environmental health outcomes, and experiences of environmental change are all affected by one’s identity. “Environmental racism” exists within pathways to global net zero when indigenous peoples and people in the Global South are forced from their communities in the name of a crisis for which they are largely not responsible for. 

The Unequal Effects of the Climate Crisis

Negative impacts of the climate crisis have been shown to disproportionately affect developing countries, indigenous communities, people of colour, and women. Vulnerable populations overall are expected to suffer more severe consequences sooner than those with greater access to resources. 

Developing countries

The greatest degree of warming is projected to be in developing countries located in the Global South, but such countries on average have a lower capacity to adapt and cope with the effects due to their lower economic capabilities than their northern counterparts. 

Indigenous communities

Rising sea levels and changing marine ecosystems have also been shown to highly effect indigenous communities in both coastal and mountainous locations.

Racial Inequality

Decades of unjust, racist environmental policies have seen some communities of colour become dumping ground for toxic chemicals. In the US, air pollution disproportionately harms individuals of colour, with more than 57% of people of color living in counties with a failing grade for air quality measures (compared to 37% of whites).

Gender Inequality

 Women are more likely to be negatively affected by the climate crisis than men. More likely to live in extreme poverty than men, women have lower access to basic human rights and resources, making adaptation to changing environmental conditions more difficult. Women also deal with systemic systems of gendered violence, which are often exacerbated by instability, such climate-induced migration.