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Climate Justice Focus Month

Need to give more importance to climate justice than to net zero targets

OPINION Prof. Dr Phillipe Cullet 31 March 2022

COP26 specifically recognized the importance of the concept of climate justice in the preamble to the Glasgow Climate Pact. Yet, the main focus of policymakers remains on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as reflected in the call to reach net zero by mid-century.

On the one hand, decarbonization of the global economy is an absolute necessity to save us from the impending doom that IPCC reports promise us. On the other hand, the focus on decarbonization ensures that broader issues that underlie the current plight of the planet are not addressed. Indeed, decarbonization on its own will not lead to the radically new world needed to tackle not just climate change but all other global environmental crises, starting with the dramatic loss of biodiversity, which also threatens life on the planet.

Thinking Beyond Sustainable Development

In effect, human societies need to wean themselves off fossil fuels and move beyond untrammelled faith in economic growth as the engine of sustainability. Reliance on ‘sustainable’ development as the driver of an environmentally sound and socially equitable world over the past three and a half decades has resulted in significant environmental damage and fast increasing inequalities between people. There is thus a need for radically new thinking that goes beyond sustainable development and its current avatar, the Sustainable Development Goals.

Firstly, climate policy needs to be based on the needs of society rather than the need of the economy. Since the 1990s, climate change has been addressed largely through the lens of greenhouse gas emissions. This provided an appropriate early entry point but led progressively to side-lining human and social concerns in favour of economic concerns. This explains why countries still talk about net zero targets in terms of their own economic self-interest. This is, for instance, the case of Switzerland, which puts forward as one of its achievements in global climate policy its negotiations of climate compensation agreements with global South countries, such as with Ghana and Senegal. These are recognised as providing flexibility to Switzerland in terms of ensuring that it does not need to reduce its own emissions entirely at home. Coming from one of the richest countries on the planet, this goes entirely against the idea of solidarity and recognition of a past and/or present climate debt to the poorer parts of the world. The same is also true of global South countries arguing that they have something like a right to emit carbon to catch up on the emissions they did not use in earlier decades or centuries. This starts from a valid historical climate justice perspective but fails to address the fact that it is not governments but citizens who suffer from domestic policies privileging growth over the environment and health, with dramatic consequences for the environment, human health and livelihoods.

Secondly, climate policy under the Paris Agreement has essentially abandoned the idea of negotiated global targets in favour of each country committing itself to targets that they deem viable. This leads to an expected lack of ambition at the international level. At the same time, the focus of policymakers is mostly on the global dimensions of climate change. This has led to a situation where climate change is understood as something that needs to be left primarily to international policymakers and only subsidiarily to national counterparts. What is needed is for policymaking to be based on the realisation that climate change is simultaneously a local and a global issue. Consequently, climate policy needs to be rethought from the ground up based on the premise of local democratic decision-making. This will not only ensure that social and livelihood concerns are given at least as much importance as economic interests but also ensure that global aspects do not trump local concerns. In other words, this will ensure that the realisation of individual and collective fundamental rights is given the priority it deserves.

Tackling Climate Change beyond Global Economic Policy

The proposed changes will strengthen existing efforts to tackle climate change rather than undermine them. Indeed, there is no point in simply addressing an issue as complex and with such multiple ramifications as climate change mostly from the point of view of global economic policy. In principle, climate change law is geared towards ensuring not just that the planet will remain inhabitable but also that this will be a planet on which all of us can live fulfilling lives. A focus on the realisation of the fundamental rights of individuals and groups, such as the right to environment is thus not a separate concern but at the centre of a successful climate policy.

Policymakers do not seem to have fully grasped this message yet, even though most of them would agree that fulfilling the right to environment is central to their mission since a majority of the world’s countries recognises the human right to environment. Yet, policymakers see climate change through a separate lens and do not make effective connections with the rights to environment, food, health or water to name but a few. The irony of this blinkered vision becomes more evident when looking at the situation of climate-displaced people, not to mention the situation of island nations slated to entirely disappear because of sea-level rise.

The future belongs to a climate policy that addresses the environmental issue of climate change through the lens of the structural inequalities between the global South and the global North and growing inequalities between people in most parts of the world. Climate policy must ensure climate justice, which starts by ensuring that every person can lead a life of dignity. 


Dr Philippe Cullet is Professor of international and environmental law at SOAS in London. His main areas of interest include environmental law, natural resources and human rights.

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