Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

Justice and Equity in Adaptation


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The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary was developed by Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich on behalf of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, with sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

While every effort is made to ensure that information on this site, and on other sites that are referenced here, is accurate, no liability for loss or damage resulting from use of this information can be accepted.

Neil Adger
M.J. Mace
Jouni Paavola
Jona Razzaque

Neil Adger, M. J. Mace, Jouni Paavola and Jona Razzaque report on a strategic assessment of the equity and justice implications of adaptation.

Neil Adger is an economist with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom.

M.J. Mace is Director of the Climate Change and Energy Programme at the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, London, United Kingdom.

Jouni Paavola is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment at the University of East Anglia.

Jona Razzaque is a staff lawyer at the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development.

Climate change has implications for equity and justice because the impacts of climate change, and resources for addressing these impacts, are unevenly distributed.

While a great deal of effort has been spent on understanding the potential burdens of climate change mitigation on countries and economies, issues relating to equity in adaptation to climate change have been largely ignored. Poor people in developing countries face the greatest impacts of climate change and have a low capacity to deal with these impacts. Yet they are least responsible for climate change.

For this reason, it is essential that the equity and justice implications of adaptation strategies and decisions are recognized and addressed at international, national, regional and local levels, both in policymaking and in implementation. This is particularly important as adaptation grows in significance in international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD), the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) have conducted a strategic assessment of equity and justice implications of adaptation. This culminated in an international seminar in September 2003, which brought together leading scholars from a variety of disciplines to think through the role of justice in adaptation to climate change and its relationship to sustainable development.

Participants agreed that issues of both distributive and procedural justice must be addressed in order to achieve equity and justice in adaptation.

Distributive justice focuses on the distributional consequences of environmental decisions, ranging from the uneven spatial and social impacts of climate change to the variable impacts of response strategies.

Procedural justice concerns how and by whom decisions on adaptive responses are made. Critical issues for procedural justice include who is recognized and heard in decisionmaking, who controls decisionmaking processes at different levels, and what the relative power of different groups to influence decisions is. These questions are important at the international level (for example under the UNFCCC), but they also matter at the local level in the context of ‘everyday' decisions on adaptation.

Distributive and procedural justice are often intertwined in the key substantive justice issues of adaptation to climate change. These include:

  • who defines categories of countries and communities as vulnerable or as least developed and how;
  • who defines terminology such as ‘appropriate burden sharing' and ‘dangerous' and how;
  • who decides which burdens (for example, public versus private burdens) will be addressed; and,
  • whose knowledge counts and how that knowledge is provided and accessed (for example, through democratic models, bottom-up and top-down models) at international, regional, national and community levels.

These and other issues of justice in adaptation need to be considered within the UNFCCC's legal framework, and within the overall UNFCCC process.

For example, preparation of National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) by the 49 Least Developed Countries of the world provides an opportunity for applying principles of equity and justice to ensure that the voices and priorities of the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change are incorporated into the UNFCCC process on adaptation. NAPAs must prioritize adaptation activities and ensure stakeholder involvement, both of which are exercises in equity.

Elsewhere under the UNFCCC, fair assessment of where capacity building, technology transfer and awareness raising activities should be focused is important.

The UNFCCC naturally takes standpoints regarding equity and justice when it makes distinctions among Parties and differentiates between responsibilities of the Parties. Nevertheless, many gaps and challenges remain and require elaboration in the Convention's framework on adaptation. Failure to successfully address equity and justice concerns would lead to disproportionate impacts on vulnerable countries and communities.

Key challenges ahead include:

  • identifying and prioritising adaptation measures among and within countries;
  • addressing disparities in institutional and negotiating capacity; and,
  • addressing interlinkages with other convention processes, mitigation activities and sustainable development.

One central challenge is to ensure that adaptation funding is adequate, predictable and driven by developing country needs. The governance framework for adaptation must be permitted to evolve in a manner that not only assists developing country Parties in determining, prioritizing and expressing their adaptation needs, but also responds to these needs in an organized manner which shares burdens transparently and equitably.

Equity and justice are also important outside the UNFCCC process. For example, other international legal frameworks contain thresholds already agreed among nations on issues that relate to the concept of ‘danger' in the context of climate change. Domestic legal frameworks also provide guidance on rights, responsibilities and personal or group liability. Such liability and compensation frameworks are one possible route for addressing burden sharing and existing ‘ecological debt'.

Models based on responsibility for past emissions or per capita rights (such as the ‘contraction and convergence' model) are also useful for considering how funding for adaptation activities should be allocated and how responsibilities for reducing emissions should be divided. Collective loss-sharing and risk transfer frameworks, such as insurance, provide other opportunities to reduce the burden of climate change on the poor.

While responsibility and insurance approaches certainly have a role in just adaptation to climate change, public adaptive responses are also needed to reduce vulnerability and to assist rural communities with adaptation. Effective governance of environmental resources, improvement of access to and functioning of markets, and the provision of public services to maintain and enhance human capital are examples of measures that would benefit the most vulnerable groups in developing countries.

These public responses must harness potential contributions from local communities and users, but they must also incorporate an element of state-building and enhancement of state capacity to be sustainable.

The main conclusions of the project can be summarized as follows:

  1. Fair adaptation requires reducing the vulnerability of the most vulnerable. This conclusion can be drawn on the basis of legal and empirical analysis of adaptation governance and practice. The application of this principle requires reducing the vulnerability to climate change of specific populations. This poses a number of challenges, not least the ability to define vulnerability at different scales. The principle of supporting the most vulnerable first is also currently at odds with rhetoric on distributive justice within the climate change regime, which almost exclusively focuses on utilitarian principles (adaptation which makes the greatest difference to the most people).

  2. Present day adaptation strategies frequently reinforce inequities. This conclusion can be drawn from empirical observations regarding adaptation strategies in many countries and contexts. Evidence suggests that adaptation decisions and plans do not benefit all stakeholders equally. Rather, they often benefit those who are not particularly vulnerable and those who are well placed to take advantage of planning and regulatory processes. For example, when recovering from the impacts of weather-related hazards, the status quo in terms of wealth and access to decisionmaking is often reinforced. It is, therefore, wrong to assume that adaptation will happen smoothly and without cost. The political economy of adaptation is, in fact, directly tied to the underlying determinants and drivers of vulnerability. Adaptation to climate change can potentially heap further injustice on past injustice.

  3. The right to avoid dangerous climate change requires fair processes. One possible approach to climate justice is to define it as a set of rights, akin to human rights. Rights-based climate justice would necessarily focus on the right to an absence of danger. Danger is not universal or experienced in the same way by all people affected by climate change impacts. A rights-based approach to climate justice, therefore, requires a process that allows diverse notions of danger to be recognized and transformed into collective decisions. The only way to reach agreement on danger is through science along with mechanisms that judge the unfairness of danger irrespective of who suffers it or when.

  4. Progress in mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and other issues is tied with justice in adaptation and other issues. Many participants in the UNFCCC negotiations back this finding. Indeed, the UK Chief Scientist, David King, reiterates the centrality of justice concerns in his article in Science in January 2004 (issue 303, pages 176-177) by stating: "Any alternative [to Kyoto] needs to accept that immediate action is required and needs to involve all countries in tackling what is a truly global problem. And developing countries would need to be brought into the process… embedded in a framework that recognizes that issues of justice and equity lie at the heart of the climate change problem."

Emerging themes that would benefit from further research include:

  1. Funding of adaptation. How should funds be raised for adaptation at international and national levels? What can be learned from the development and disbursement of UNFCCC funds for adaptation? How are these funds likely to succeed or fail in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable countries and communities? To what extent does existing funding reflect responsibility for the impacts of climate change, and what strategies might lead to more equitable burden sharing of the costs of adaptation? What is the role of compensation and liability schemes in the climate change context? How might insurance mechanisms be used to fund adaptation or reduce economic vulnerability? How might funding for adaptation be equitably channelled?

  2. National Adaptation Planning and NAPAs. What can be learned from experiences with the NAPA process to date, both at international and national levels? How does the NAPA process, and the different outcomes of this process, differ between developing countries facing different national circumstances? How do the bottom-up results from the NAPA process contrast with other formally-adopted top-down national priorities? How might frameworks be developed for the prioritization of adaptation activities at local, regional, national and international levels? What information does the NAPA process provide for evaluating the potential and value of stakeholder participation in adaptation decisionmaking and national planning processes?

  3. Justice, climate impacts and vulnerability. How can adaptation build upon existing risk management strategies? What links exist between climate change and development issues? How might physical and socio-economic vulnerability to extreme weather events be reduced in developing countries to assist with adaptation to climate change? Could insurance approaches be tailored to enhance resilience and increase adaptive capacity?

In conclusion, justice, both of outcome and process, is intertwined at different levels of decisionmaking within institutions and collective action for adaptation. The traditional framework of distributive justice is thus inadequate for a comprehensive analysis of justice in adaptation. Human life and health, security, and the integrity of global ecosystems are all important justice imperatives, which can and often ought to be considered independently of economic welfare.

A comprehensive approach to the study of justice in adaptation must acknowledge procedural issues relating to recognition, participation, fair process and the use of power. These procedural issues are particularly important because of the multi-level nature of adaptation and because of the multiple objectives of international cooperation under the UNFCCC.

Differential vulnerability to climate change should be a central concern. Climate change impacts on vulnerable ecosystems and on vulnerable individuals and communities require just adaptation. This can often be best achieved by reducing the vulnerability of the most vulnerable and least advantaged. Current principles and practices diverge from this principle and all of us involved in climate change related action need to seek equitable and legitimate solutions if we are to be part of a transition to sustainable development.

Further information
Neil Adger, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR7 4TJ, UK. Fax: +44-1603-593901. Email: n.adger@uea.ac.uk. Web: www.tyndall.ac.uk.
M.J. Mace and Jona Razzaque, FIELD, 52-53 Russell Square, London WC1B 4HP, UK. Fax: +44-20-76377951. Email: mj.mace@field.org.uk and jona.razzaque@field.org.uk
Jouni Paavola, CSERGE, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. Fax: +44-1603-507719. Email: j.paavola@uea.ac.uk. Web: www.uea.ac.uk/env/cserge/.

On the Web
A working paper on this topic is available. See also the discussion of the equity and the factors that determine adaptive capacity from the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report.

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Updated: May 15th 2015