Climate justice and social justice: how poverty is impacted by, and simultaneously drives climate change

Friday 5th November 2021 by Charlotte Knigge
A sign being held above people's head reading "There is NO Planet B"

Tomorrow, Saturday 6 November, actions and demonstrations will take place in Glasgow, across the UK and the world for the Global Day for Climate Justice. Demonstrators are calling for more action to support disadvantaged communities to tackle the effects of climate change. The world’s most vulnerable communities are rapidly losing their livelihoods due to extreme weather conditions, which exacerbates existing poverty and inequity.[1]

I’ve recently joined Rocket Science partly because of their approach work on poverty alleviation; by looking through several lenses and questioning how we can help disadvantaged groups attain a greater voice and agency.

Climate justice is deeply connected to poverty and social justice, abroad as well as within the UK. While the complete loss of livelihood is less likely for disadvantaged communities on the British Isles (although there are notable examples), disadvantaged and lower-income groups are still likely “to be the most negatively affected by climate change”[2] while contributing the least to it, a 2014 evidence review by the Centre of Sustainable Energy in collaboration with the Universities of Manchester and Oxford concluded.[3] Apart from immediate climate change concerns from extreme weather conditions, the lifestyle choices disadvantaged groups have to make drive climate change, and simultaneously make a sustainable lifestyle less accessible for them. For instance:

  • Living in poor quality housing with inefficient insulation and heating leads to higher energy costs, especially considering the recent spike in gas prices, and more fuel use.
  • Not being able to buy local, organic and/or sustainable food because it’s too expensive often means relying on unsustainably produced foods, with potentially higher carbon emissions.
  • For purchases other than food, the more sustainable and durable products are often more expensive and therefore out of reach. Cheaply made, short-lasting products not only means a less sustainable product, but also a product that needs to be replaced much faster, therefore adding to a poverty premium.
  • Public transport and active travel can offer good options for sustainable travel, although it can be too expensive and difficult to commute to cities using public transport.[4] For those required to travel via car, the more sustainable car options are often too expensive and out of reach, creating a dependency on cheaper, higher-emitting cars. This can also decrease air quality in deprived and particularly dense neighbourhoods.

In summary people in poverty do not have the luxury to think about having a sustainable lifestyle; about getting that electric bike or car, going plastic-free, buying from independent, local stores instead of online, or travelling by train.

Rocket Science’s work around these areas has looked at different ways in which a poverty and sustainability lens can be adopted in public policy, for instance:

  • Working with community organisations to pilot new and innovative ways to address food poverty that are more dignified than traditional food bank models,
  • Supporting charities and people to understand current and future fuel needs in order to decrease fuel poverty,
  • Helping stakeholders to implement new approaches to skills and employment to support poverty reduction and ensure that people are helped to sustain employment, particularly pathways to jobs in the green economy,
  • Enabling communities to research and conducting consultations with their own families and networks in the co-design of community assets and spaces.

In Scotland, steps are made towards an inclusive green recovery to ensure everyone is able to take part in the green economy. The IPPR outlined in their report Better than Before: A Scotland built on economic and climate justice how the Scottish government should view climate justice as essential in tackling poverty, and how disadvantaged communities can benefit from the green recovery.[5] The Just Transition commission of the Scottish government recognises the need for working towards a climate resilient economy which “delivers fairness and tackles inequality and injustice.”[6] Moreover, the Scottish government announced in September that it will double its Climate Justice Fund to help the world’s most vulnerable communities tackle climate change (£3 million to £6 million). These look like promising steps towards holistic climate justice.

Climate justice in the UK should therefore focus on a holistic approach to poverty, allowing everyone to benefit from sustainability and the green economy. As the COP26 progresses, I am curious to see how Scotland and the UK will work towards a green economy, and if they will do this in a way that delivers climate justice and poverty alleviation abroad, but also at home.

Charlotte Knigge is a consultant in the Edinburgh office. If you would like to find out more information, get in touch with her via charlotte.knigge@rocketsciencelab.co.uk


[1] The need for climate justice to take centre stage at COP26 – Institute of Development Studies (ids.ac.uk)

[2] Climate change and social justice: an evidence review | Centre for Sustainable Energy (cse.org.uk)

[3] Climate change and social justice: an evidence review (cse.org.uk)

[4] Newcastle’s ‘weak’ public transport costs economy £1.7 billion a year, says report | ITV News Tyne Tees

[5] Better than before: A Scotland built on social, economic, and climate justice | IPPR

[6] Just Transition Commission – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)