Blog December 13, 2023

Beyond COP28: Bridging the Climate Justice Gap with People at the Forefront

  • Justice
  • Pathfinders

The Justice for All report highlights the importance of putting people at the center of justice. This can be achieved by understanding their justice needs, preventing and resolving their justice problems, empowering them, and improving their justice journeys. This newest article in the Pathfinders #JusticeForAll series focuses on climate justice—reflecting on COP28, the new Loss and Damage Fund, and the impacts of environmental injustice. As climate change policy rapidly evolves, this piece calls attention to the importance of people-centered justice as a tool to ensure a just transition that addresses the justice problems of the most vulnerable populations and ensures no one is left behind.

Bokeh photo of mainstage (with green background) at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.

COP28 opened with a historic agreement to help the world’s most vulnerable countries pay for the impacts of climate change. The USD 420 million pledged to operationalize the Loss and Damage Fund was met with excitement and a standing ovation.

While this announcement was a welcome step, the financing gap between what was pledged and what is needed to help communities bearing the brunt of climate change disasters remains massive: the projected annual cost of Loss and Damage will be between USD 290 and 580 billion by 2030, escalating thereafter, up to an additional USD 300 billion annually for adaptation.

For billions of individuals who already grapple with justice problems and cannot find a resolution, climate change will exacerbate the challenges they face in their daily lives.

Supporting the justice needs of individuals and communities is critical to a just transition.

In Dubai, Attiya Waris, the UN’s Independent Expert on foreign debt, other international financial obligations, and human rights, underscored the importance of systems “underpinned by fairness and justice” as they are the most “efficient and effective” investments in climate solutions.

Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing injustices, creating a cycle of impact that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and marginalized in high- and low-income countries alike. Meanwhile, injustice is “both fuel and byproduct.” Instances of injustice are predicted to risewith “livelihood loss, displacement, urbanization, health risks, resource conflicts, and the transition to a CO2 net-zero economy all triggering a surge in justice problems.”

Yet, with the majority of climate conversations focused on institutional agreements at the local level, people’s needs remain unaddressed. Research from the Grassroots Justice Network has shown that across the world, legally empowering communities to govern the places they live and lead the transition to a sustainable economy can complement a speedy energy transition, build trust between citizens and their government, and safeguard democracy.

Several countries have acknowledged that climate policies are most effectivewhen communities and Indigenous groups are involved and can hold corporations and governments accountable.

“People-centered climate justice supports impacted populations to foster long-term change and find solutions to everyday injustice.”

In some places, efforts are made to direct climate financing to impacted communities. In the United States, for example, Justice40 aims to provide 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments relating to climate change to marginalized populations.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s high court has ruled that the government has a constitutional duty to finance its Climate Fund, bolstering legal protections for Indigenous groups. However, the vast majority of climate decisions continue to be made without the input or consent of these communities.

Lawyers from the Center for International Environmental Law have raised concerns that the new Loss and Damage Fund risks not delivering climate justice by “failing to put affected groups in the driver’s seat.” A people-centered justice approach, on the other hand, would support the Fund to deliver its ambitions of addressing the most impacted populations’ needs.

Conversations around carbon markets, another vital source of income for recovery and adaptation, have also faced criticism for failing to adequately examine their negative impacts on local communities. Iris Olivera, from the non-profit civil organization DAR Peru, told delegates that “the business culture of the carbon markets is very similar to the way they used to do deforestation.” Indigenous leaders report being taken advantage of with “opaque deals for carbon rights that can last up to a century, lengthy contracts written in English, and communities being pushed out of their lands.” In Liberia, the government allegedly agreed to grant nearly 10 percent of its land area to a Dubai-based firm for carbon offsetting in a deal that could override the customary land rights of forest communities, potentially violating several laws. Without legal empowerment to support understanding and use of these existing laws, communities are left powerless in negotiations over their homes and livelihoods.

Impacted communities understand the importance of achieving net zero and witness how transparent carbon markets support this. In Peru, DAR is working alongside Indigenous peoples to navigate carbon contracts and push the government to make information publicly available on companies exploring Indigenous territories.

In Liberia, Community Forestry Development Committeessupport communities to make decisions about their land, including payments from companies. Rather than circumventing, Andrew Zelemen from the National Union of Community Forestry Development Committees encourages companies and governments to “ensure that communities affected by the deal are fully involved, participating in every aspect, from the planning to the implementation, and those communities receive the higher portion of the benefits.”

Furthermore, some governments have already incorporated the principles of people-centered justice in their climate reforms. Sweden, among others, calls for carbon markets (overseen by Paris Agreement Article 6.4) to build in Free Prior and Informed Consent by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.

The European Commission’s emerging Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive would require companies to address the adverse impacts of their actions on communities and the environment, including along their value chains. Already, Sierra Leone’s Customary Land Rights and National Land Commission laws grant communities the right to Free Prior Informed Consent over industrial projects and establish land use committees to secure effective land administration.

Climate policymakers have the opportunity to double down on these principles and establish safeguards before opening markets (through the UN Article 6.4 Supervisory Body) that uphold human and Indigenous peoples’ rights and provide legal avenues for meaningful consent and redress, outside of litigation, around carbon markets. If integrated into the design phase, people-centered justice can help establish more equitable contracts and more methods for accountability. Vitally, the right safeguards can protect the many environmental justice defenders who are harassed, threatened or killedeach year.

Failing to embed people-centered justice within climate change strategies not only widens the global justice gap, but it squanders the opportunity for a truly just transition. Empowering communities to govern their own spaces, ensuring their active participation in decision-making processes and supporting institutions to understand and respond to the growing justice needs of impacted populations are crucial steps.

In the long term, a thematic day on Justice at COP would demonstrate to communities that the injustices they face are not theirs to suffer alone. Emerging from COP28, prioritizing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ rights and concerns on carbon markets, ensuring that Loss and Damage funds support the justice needs of vulnerable populations, and strengthening a commitment to people-centered justice will push us closer to solving the climate crisis more fairly.

Header: “Attendees entering a meeting room during COP28, December 12, 2023, Dubai, United Arab Emirates,” Photo: COP28/Christopher Pike.

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

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