Urban climate justice: connecting social justice and decarbonisation

To achieve sustainable urbanisation, cities must build inclusive systems that reduce inequality while enabling pathways to net zero.

Article, 23 June 2022
Better cities are possible: achieving resilient, low-carbon and inclusive urban development
A series of articles looking at ways to achieve resilient, low-carbon and inclusive urban development
Water pours from two pipes set into stone, surrounded by photos, alongside a pile of clothes.

Aerial view of Villa 20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Photo: Instituto de la Vivienda de la Ciudad (IVC))

Cities in the global South can leapfrog the carbon-intensive trajectories forged by the global North by supporting decarbonisation – the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – and responding to longstanding social, economic and environmental inequalities. 

Green-blue infrastructure and nature-based solutions can deliver on climate targets and health and social benefits. Informal housing settlements should become key sites of interventions, with climate-resilient upgrading delivering increased access to water, clean energy and low-carbon housing.

Urban planning must include informal settlements when providing high-quality, low-carbon public transport and inclusive active mobility (such as cycling and pedestrian infrastructure). Vertically integrated urban policies need to prioritise ending energy poverty through renewable energy generation and electrification, and enhance support for the circular economy (especially for informal waste-pickers and other marginalised groups).

This is part of a series of articles setting out a vision for urban transformation that responds to the twin crises of climate change and inequality.

The problem

Global climate justice movements and policy research have largely focused on the historical responsibilities for emissions among wealthier and high-emitting nation states, the distribution of climate risks, and the economic and social wellbeing of populations affected by climate policies and interventions.

However, we urgently need to deepen our understanding of how decarbonisation efforts can benefit the urban poor, how climate risks are distributed within cities, and how cities can develop resilient, socially just, net-zero trajectories in diverse social, political and economic contexts. 

One in seven people live in informal settlements globally, most without decent housing, sanitation, water or other basic services. Informal settlements have relatively low carbon footprints, and any infrastructural investments that include a focus on decarbonisation will enable these communities to bypass the carbon-intensive trajectories under way in other parts of the city.

While sources of finance to upgrade informal settlements are limited, climate finance focused on mitigation could prioritise urban infrastructural investments that also respond to the unmet needs of low-income and informal communities. 

Climate finance for cities predominantly flows to OECD countries and China. Cities in low- and middle-income countries receive small amounts of climate finance despite rapid urban growth. Consequently, many cash-strained local governments in the global South may view the imperative to decarbonise cities as an impossible mandate.

There are obvious decarbonisation opportunities linked to housing and basic services provision in informal settlements, but there are few examples of decarbonising initiatives that also deliver on key targets regarding poverty reduction, social inclusion and equity for the poorest communities.

Driving IIED's latest work on urban climate justice for informal settlements is a demonstrated need for more integrated data on climate vulnerability, carbon consumption and poverty to ensure that mitigation investments strive for climate justice.

Well organised participatory processes must be prioritised so that policies, planning and implementation incorporate the specific needs of low-income and marginalised groups, in order to guard against unintended negative social or economic impacts from mitigation investments.

The solution

Cities present vital opportunities for responding to climate change. However, moving from climate justice talk to action requires responding directly to pervasive issues of inequality and daily injustices faced by the urban poor.

Research on locally driven urban development and settlement upgrading demonstrates how technocratic interventions that fail to create adequate space for the leadership of marginalised groups will undermine efforts to develop transformative and just decarbonisation pathways.

Transformative policies and regulatory frameworks are urgently needed to radically alter how people live, consume, work and move about the city. However, unless such changes are shaped around the needs of all citizens, responses will be top-down, fail to respond to local contexts and be more likely to backfire. This would potentially deepen social and economic inequalities.

Climate policy research has identified several priority sectors to decarbonise cities. Many of these are at the national regulatory level but require close collaboration with local government in order for them to be implemented. Implementing decarbonisation efforts in many countries will require working with informality rather than against it. 

There is scope to learn from the affordable housing and upgrading solutions pioneered by local governments and organised communities in informal settlements across the global South. At IIED, we are working with longstanding partners on the following policy demands:

  • More decentralised data on climate vulnerability, emissions and poverty/inequality in cities is needed to guide climate-just investments in urban infrastructure and specifically informal settlements
  • Achieving global climate change targets in cities requires actively aligning with community actors and social movements advocating for just and inclusive cities. This is dependent on grassroots organisations being informed and organised around mitigation priorities and forms of finance and what these means for their priorities, and
  • Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and municipal climate action plans and policies should be aligned with socioeconomic development policies. They should have a specific emphasis on how climate investment priorities address existing social and environmental inequalities across the city.

    This must be accompanied by well organised participatory processes or working with well organised community groups/federations of the urban poor that focus on developing investment-orientated proposals.

Building on our work

IIED’s Human Settlements research group continues to work with local governments and federations of the urban poor that are committed to deepening understandings of urban poverty and risk in informal settlements and promoting the development of resilient, inclusive people-centred slum-upgrading schemes.

There is much to build on, including the utility of local data collection, scalable pilot projects, co-produced solutions, city-level exchanges and the decentralisation of development and climate finance

An IIED project funded by the International Climate Initiative and Transformative Urban Coalitions (IKI-TUC) provides a novel opportunity to support the development of practical interventions focused on decarbonisation and inclusive, equitable climate governance in five Latin American cities.

In Buenos Aires, an ongoing participatory upgrading intervention in Villa 20 (a low-income informally developed settlement) is the setting for an urban lab that is currently exploring the use of green and blue infrastructure and renewable and low-energy technologies.

This project has revealed an untapped opportunity for IIED to collaborate with our longstanding partners to develop a broader new programme of work at IIED that integrates efforts to achieve net zero cities with efforts to tackle poverty, inequality and achieve social justice.

Given IIED’s broader work on global climate justice and beyond, we are uniquely positioned to define and influence the policy research agenda on this theme.

Myth buster: “The urban poor have no role in climate planning for cities”

We want to dispel the myth that the urban poor have no role to play in debates related to mitigation in cities and planning processes focused on decarbonising cities or achieving net zero.

The urban poor should not be burdened with personal responsibilities to decrease their carbon footprints. But we cannot and must not exclude them from mitigation debates or generation-defining decision-making. 

There are real concerns about the equity and justice dimensions of investments focused on decarbonisation in cities. Will low-income households be priced out of neighbourhoods that benefit from low-carbon redevelopment? Will marginalised households be forced to live with vulnerable and inefficient housing and basic services?

Efforts to establish net zero pathways and implement decarbonisation initiatives are not politically neutral: they have concrete social and economic implications that are often contested. 

Without planning processes that involve local governments and low-income urban communities, mitigation investments in the built environment will exacerbate socioeconomic and environmental injustices in cities across the global South.

Working with partners, we will demonstrate how mitigation finance can be used not only to respond to climate change but also to respond to local priorities of improving equitable access to resilient and sustainable basic services and housing in low-income settlements.