During the spring and summer of 2020, countries in sub-Saharan Africa were facing a food crisis. Unusually heavy rains, floods and locust swarms had devastated crops across East Africa. On top of this, the coronavirus crisis delayed delivery of agricultural equipment, pesticides and fertilizers, while lockdown restrictions prevented farmers from transporting produce and livestock to markets. According to the World Food Programme, more than 40 million people are still facing severe food shortages.

The case of sub-Saharan Africa demonstrates that there is a link between the impacts of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. Around the world, communities are experiencing the effects of climate change in different ways, but many of those disproportionately affected are the same people who suffer the socio-economic effects of COVID-19.

This fact has given added importance to the issue of climate justice, which recognizes that it is the poorest and most vulnerable people – who have contributed least to carbon emissions and climate change – who are suffering the most. Facing the long-term risks from a changing climate but also the onslaught of extreme weather events, the poorest are least able to respond to these phenomena that damage their already fragile environments.

Recognizing humanity’s responsibility for the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the poorest in society, climate justice seeks to reduce inequality and promote transformative approaches to addressing the root causes of climate change.

So, what role can the international community play to safeguard the lives and livelihood of the many millions of people who are at the forefront of climate change?

The issue of embodying climate justice in post-Covid recovery plans is now moving to the centre of political debate in wealthy societies. But that does not address vulnerabilities in the developing world. The United Nations University estimates that COVID-19 poses a real challenge to the Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030 – instead, the number of people living in poverty could increase by between 420 million and 580 million compared with 2018.

Because of the economic effects of supply chain disruptions associated with COVID-19, the number of people worldwide suffering from food insecurity could double from about 135 million in 2019 to 265 million people in 2020. The most recent UN report, State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, casts doubt on whether the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be achievable. The 2025 nutrition targets, which aim to reduce low birth weight in babies, stunting among the under-fives and diet-related overweight problems in children, are at risk too.

Biden’s promise of action

Nine months after the emergence of the coronavirus, there is a debate on the possibility of a green recovery from the pandemic. Will national recovery strategies promote or undermine climate action? At the same time, there are calls for the recovery to address inequalities between countries and within our societies, to turn, ‘We are all in this together’, into more than a glib phrase.

There are some very positive signs that climate justice concerns are being acknowledged in mainstream politics in some developed countries.

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign includes the Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. It explicitly links a clean energy future and green jobs to environmental and climate justice. Published in July 2020 at the height of the pandemic, it stresses the need to ‘engage in community-driven approaches to develop solutions for environmental injustices affecting communities of colour, low- income and indigenous communities’.

This is the first presidential campaign in American history to take environmental justice concerns seriously. The plan also calls for creating a White House council on environmental justice and restoring the Environmental Protection Agency’s civil rights office. The plan was compiled through a process of coalition building – bringing together environmental justice advocates, climate campaigners, union leaders and advisers from the financial industry and energy sector.

The European Union has announced a €750 billion recovery plan, based on the European Green Deal that was unveiled in early 2020 before the pandemic hit. The Green Deal includes a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism that takes into account the impact of mitigation policies on fossil fuel-based industries so that communities that depend on them are not unjustly affected. In the interests of fairness, differing approaches have been taken to coal and other fossil fuel extraction industries, though climate justice must not be used as an argument by incumbent industries to slow or halt decarbonization.

Britain has set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The government’s recovery slogan – tacitly recognizing the stark inequalities in society revealed by the pandemic – is ‘build back better’. But what does this mean?

A strategic approach to a green recovery plan needs to embrace the core values of equity and inclusivity. These were embodied in Britain by a citizens’ assembly set up in 2019 to work out a path to reaching net zero by 2050. The assembly included discussions on travel on land and by air, heat and energy use in the home, what we eat, how we use our land and what we buy. At the heart of these discussions was a clear recognition that fairness should be the basis of all solutions.

Recovery funding

More than $20 trillion in funding initiatives for the post-COVID-19 recovery has been announced, and the UN has sent a clear message that the money must promote a shift towards a green economy. The Green Climate Fund, established by the UN Framework Commission on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has attracted pledges of $10.3 billion as of July 2020. Yet, a common critique of climate finance is that there are no clear criteria to ensure that climate finance reaches the poorest and most vulnerable countries and communities.

At the time of the Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted five years ago, only 30 per cent of international public climate finance reached the least-developed countries. This spurred a push to give developing countries a greater say in the share of climate funds, so that now the Green Climate Fund’s board boasts equal representation from developed and developing countries. Despite this, the limited reach of climate finance has not changed. A review of the fund’s projects in May 2019 found that only 19 per cent of funds reached the poorest countries as opposed to 65 per cent going to projects in middle-income countries.

One reason for this is that funding outside the UNFCCC’s consensus-based processes is influenced by donor states more than developing countries.

Ultimately, this has resulted in a situation where climate funds are not disbursed according to the principles of distributive justice and the priorities of developing countries, but tend to align with market-based solutions.

The consequence is that climate funds are more likely to finance projects that are more profitable or with lower financial risk. A recent review of multilateral development bank funds revealed that countries most in need of adaptation finance – to help them deal with climate change – are not prioritized, nor is capacity-building focused on countries with weak institutions.

The Green Climate Fund itself gave its largest grant of $160 million to the middle-income country Indonesia to develop a geothermal project, whereas Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, was forced to settle for a $45 million grant, after initially requesting $99.6 million, to improve basic access to water and food. The disparity stems from the fact that the fund requires countries to seek co-finance to mitigate financial risk, which Indonesia can do thanks to its ability to attract private investors and draw on its tax base, while Ethiopia cannot.

COP26 diplomacy

The COP26 climate summit to take place in Glasgow in November 2021 offers a unique opportunity to address global climate justice issues. Britain, co-host with Italy, has a huge responsibility to make Glasgow a success. A key focus will be the pledges made by countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change – the so-called nationally determined contributions – and ensuring that these targets are implemented in a socially just manner. The Race to Zero campaign, a UNFCCC initiative to build momentum for a decarbonized economy in the run-up to the summit, is testament of the continuing drive to build a climate-neutral and resilient world. The campaign encourages collaboration between parties to the Paris climate agreement with a wide range of other stakeholders such a businesses, cities, subnational regions, investors and civil society. This is an opportunity for the UN and world governments to embrace climate justice and show solidarity to tackle both the climate crisis and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic.