Return to journal

From awareness to action: how can businesses navigate climate justice in 2023 and beyond?

Sustainability analyst Rabiah Kahol examines what climate justice really means, why businesses should care and what they can do to address it. 

 an illustrated arm holding a balance bar weighted to the left with a large green pebble shape, and a lighter blue pebble shape on the right

As the impact of climate change worsens each year, the glaring inequities of climate change consequences come to the fore, underscoring the urgency for climate justice. Whilst 2023 has been a pivotal year for climate justice efforts at a national level, the corporate sector is still grappling with its role in this sphere.


As we delve into the heart of this complex topic, we realise that businesses are a crucial part of the solution. Read on to understand what climate justice means, the impact of climate justice on business and how your business can address climate justice issues head-on. 


A background to climate justice


The dire impacts of climate change are felt disproportionately by different people in different places. Marginalised communities, low-income and climate-vulnerable countries are impacted worst, despite historically contributing the least to climate change and having less per capita emissions* when compared to higher-income countries, leading to climate injustice.


Climate justice is a human rights-based approach to climate action that seeks to mitigate the imbalance between the contributors of climate change and those who are impacted by it the worst. It emphasises the link between human rights, development, and climate action to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly.


*Per capita emissions are the emissions of a country divided by its population i.e., the emissions an average person in a country generates. 


Who are the contributors to climate change? 


A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam reveals a stark reality: between 1990 and 2015, a mere 5% of the global population was responsible for a staggering 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, the poorest half of the population contributed less than 6% of these emissions. To add a historical perspective, since the mid-1700s, the United States, Canada, and the EU-28 have generated over 60% of global emissions, while the entire African Continent, comprising 54 nations, accounted for a mere 3%.


This is significant because emissions accumulate in the atmosphere over time, ultimately contributing to climate change. Thus, certain countries bear substantially greater responsibility for causing climate change than others while simultaneously benefiting from the economic growth driven by past emission-related energy. 


On the other side of the equation, vulnerable nations in the global south face the most severe consequences of climate change. They grapple with death, displacement, loss of livelihoods, and even the existential threat of losing their country, despite contributing minimally to the problem. This disheartening contrast leads to a compelling argument: the assessment of climate change responsibility must be based on each country's contribution to cumulative historical emissions, effectively making climate justice an issue of accountability.


Where do businesses stand in the fight for climate justice?


As we journey through 2023, climate justice has emerged as a pivotal global concern.  Earlier this year, the United Nations adopted a resolution that grants it the authority to request legal opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal ramifications of causing environmental harm in ways that affect other nations - especially countries that are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 


This resolution was spearheaded by the island nation of Vanuatu, a country that has suffered the worst effects of climate change and has been vocal about its demands for climate justice for years.

Despite these efforts at an international level, the corporate sector still grapples with its role in climate justice, making this a subject that is still largely unaddressed. While around 929 companies from the Forbes 2000 list now have Net Zero targets, only a fraction of these companies have equivalent social sustainability targets that address topics like climate justice, human rights, decent work or worker empowerment, amongst others.

The contrast between efforts aimed at tackling the social aspects of global decarbonisation, like ensuring a just transition, versus the environmental aspects feels shortsighted , given the intricate interconnectedness between the two. 


While the ‘race to zero’ is a pivotal component of global decarbonisation, it's equally imperative we make sure this transition is executed in a just manner - without the burden of the transition being borne disproportionately by minority communities. 


Therefore, there’s a need for corporations, not just countries, to recognise and act on climate justice because a global transition cannot be achieved unless the social impacts of climate change, such as climate injustice, are effectively confronted.


Why businesses should care about climate justice.


Beyond the ethical argument of doing what’s right to ensure all countries have equitable resources for climate change mitigation and adaptation, the latest IPCC report underscores that climate change will impact everyone, including businesses. If vulnerable or low-lying countries like Tuvalu, Maldives and Bangladesh, or even parts of the United States or Europe, are heavily impacted by climate change, the world stands to lose out on the positive contribution these areas bring from a cultural perspective and to the global economy. Moreover, this will make the business community susceptible to severe supply chain disruptions as well as the loss of labour forces and customers.


This means that everyone, especially businesses, has a role to play in mitigating this impact. Furthermore, the transition to a more sustainable future needs to be made in a way that's fair and inclusive to everyone. The International Labour Organisation defines this "Just Transition" as:


•    Greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities, and leaving no one behind.


Additionally, political action on climate justice is also rising in light of movements like Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter, as well as the increasing humanitarian and economic costs of climate change. The EU's Green Deal and the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights are a few examples of this. 

Businesses are responding to these regulatory and legal requirements but are still late in addressing the challenge presented by climate justice. 


So, how can you as a business address climate justice?


Companies hold influence over how climate justice issues are addressed through their control over their direct operations, supply chains and public policy. 


To stay at the forefront of climate justice and its impact, businesses need to:


•    Improve the understanding of what climate justice means within the business. The first step to making sure your business addresses climate justice is raising awareness, within your organisation. A study conducted in six European countries found that less than 30% of the participants in the study were able to explain the term "climate justice" to someone else. This is a gap that can be closed within organisations by investing in training, tools, and knowledge to promote climate justice among employees as well as other stakeholders along the supply chain.

•    Do your due diligence. Look inward at your own value chain and identify any activities in your business that might be impacting vulnerable communities unjustly. Commit to respecting human rights across your value chain and follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

•    Engage with diverse groups to make climate-related decisions. Make sure you're engaging a range of diverse voices from across the business while making climate-related decisions to ensure the inclusion of a broader range of perspectives and better diversity of thought.

•    Collaborate. Issues like climate change and climate justice cannot be tackled alone. Therefore, organisations need to collaborate with stakeholders, other businesses, NGOs, and other partners to amplify the pace and scale of climate justice endeavours.

•    Weave in climate justice at the heart of climate action. B Corp's Climate Justice Playbook recognises that organisations cannot tackle climate change without making an effort to centre people and climate justice at the heart of climate action. To enable this long-term transition, organisations must evolve from extractive and exploitative business practices, to equitable and regenerative business practices. Businesses can make this shift by prioritising equitable and regenerative approaches based on new power models that prioritise collaboration, diverse perspectives and intersectional decision-making. This approach will put those who are most impacted by climate change at the forefront of driving solutions, thereby fostering sustained social and environmental well-being.
Climate justice is no longer a distant ideal; it's an urgent call to action for businesses worldwide. As we navigate the complexities of this issue, we realise that every entity, from nations to corporations, holds a piece of the solution. By starting their journey to embracing climate justice, businesses can drive positive change and contribute to a future where the burdens and benefits of climate change are shared fairly, ensuring a sustainable and equitable world for all.


Helpful resources for your business:

Mary Robinson Foundation Principles of Climate Justice

Greenpeace charts on why climate change is a justice issue

Framing climate justice

JRF - Climate change and social justice: an evidence review

BCORP - Climate justice


Further reading:

Sustainable Brands - Inequality, the sustainable business blind spot, written by RY Sustainability strategist Isabel Shipley