Global climate action must be just

Key messages

  • Climate action must support just transitions, as it could otherwise slow down improvements in living standards in low- and middle-income countries and burden disadvantaged people globally.
  • Working toward just, equitable and low-carbon development for poorer countries:
    • requires the richest 1% to cut their emissions by a factor of 30, which would
    • enable the poorest 50% of the world’s population to increase their emissions up to three-fold.
  • Justice-oriented climate action is more likely to achieve public acceptance, improving uptake of implementation.

Insight explained

Global climate action must be designed to tackle rising inequalities and injustices between social groups and across generations living in different countries around the world. A just distribution of the carbon budget would require the richest 1% of the global population to reduce their current emissions by at least a factor of 30, while per capita emissions of the poorest 50% of the global population could increase by around three times their current levels on average. This would require the decarbonization of existing production and consumption infrastructure and the promotion of low-carbon lifestyles. Targets and incentives to facilitate this transition would necessarily result in a two-speed global process, with a high rate of change perceptible at the G20 level. Justice-oriented climate policies are likely to be more widely acceptable, increasing the potential for effective implementation for the benefit of all.

Not only are climate impacts unfairly distributed, but actions to mitigate climate change also risk having an undue impact on the most vulnerable. Climate policies that increase the cost of basic goods such as domestic energy, water or food – for example through taxation or through adding the cost of limiting environmental damage into the provision of these goods and services – tend to have regressive distributional effects as they hit people on low incomes harder than richer people in relative terms (discussed further in insight 7). Policies and processes that seek to shrink high-carbon economic sectors and expand the low-carbon economy can threaten the livelihoods of workers in high-carbon sectors unless they are coupled with skills-upgrading and job-creation schemes. Mineral resources needed for low-carbon technologies, such as batteries and photovoltaic panels, are often mined in poorer countries in ways that generate detrimental environmental and social effects. Furthermore, climate action could slow down increases in living standards in the lower- to middle-income countries, while poorer countries and people have less capacity to act on climate change.

Lack of infrastructural development in many developing countries, not least in sub-Saharan Africa, may provide an opportunity to leapfrog to resource-efficient and climate-resilient infrastructure systems. This requires a political economy supportive of countries with lower capacities to balance mitigation, adaptation and development priorities. For instance, richer countries should contribute to low-carbon investments in poorer countries. These shifts require disruption of the status quo, transforming systemic inequalities and the structures that maintain them.

International climate ambition can and must ensure co-benefits for vulnerable societies. Moreover, it should not undermine people’s access to basic goods. In order to achieve just and ambitious action, the past, present and future rights derived from a just distribution of the global carbon budget must be protected.



When comparing carbon footprints per capita across the world, huge disparities emerge (within and across countries). For instance: the richest 10% of the world’s population was responsible for 52% of cumulative carbon emissions (based on consumption) through the 1990-2015 period, while the poorest 50% accounted only for 7% of them. During this period, the carbon footprint of the richest 10% continued to rise, and there is a lack of mitigation policies to limit the emissions of this population segment.

It is worth noting that, despite the recorded increase of the global carbon footprint since the 1970s, inequities in its distribution tend to decline. This is in part due to the economic growth of China and to the strong coupling between income level (GDP) and carbon footprint. Achieving the decoupling between these two variables will be a great challenge in order to mitigate climate change while pursuing wellbeing for all and advancing development and climate agendas. Evidence is accumulating that wealthier countries may be well advised to prioritize environmental and social objectives in their policy making and their measurement of social and economic progress in place of growth in GDP.

Climate change impacts have already, and continue to, affect vulnerable people and countries who have least contributed to the problem. The G20 member countries account for around 78% of global GHG emissions, and will thereby largely determine global emissions trends in the coming decades.

Rich countries’ current and promised actions are inadequate for tackling the climate crisis, and do not take responsibility for the disparity of emissions and impacts. A glaring example is the near-term commitments of the G20 countries based on Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, which are insufficient for achieving net-zero reduction targets.

Implications & Recommendations

At a global level, it is important for negotiators and decision-makers to:

  • use pricing on CO2 emissions strategically (discussed further in insight 7), with redistribution of resources and financial transfers from rich to poor countries to avoid regressive effects of low-carbon transitions;
  • support low- and middle-income countries in their endeavours to leapfrog directly to low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure, drawing benefits from the lower costs and infrastructural requirements of distributed renewable energy;
  • develop a just system of global burden sharing, for instance through a greenhouse development rights approach13 or an equal cumulative per capita emissions approach14, which can reduce global poverty;
  • reset deliberations on national climate ambitions in terms of targets that are designed to further reduce the disparity of the carbon budget distribution;
  • reconceptualize how growth is achieved, decoupling income level (GDP) and carbon footprint, in order to simultaneously prioritize the pursuit of well-being for all and the advancement of development and climate agendas.

At a national and local level, it is important that governments:

  • in the context of the wealthiest nations, establish much more aggressive policies in alignment with not only the best available climate science (i.e. achieve or exceed compliance with the Paris Agreement and net zero targets), but also in line with equity-oriented targets. This requires a reduction in consumption emissions to a per capita lifestyle footprint of around 2-2.5 tonnes CO2eq by 2030;
  • establish policies to heavily tax luxury products and activities with a high carbon footprint;
  • conduct careful advance analyses of potential distributional and justice implications of low-carbon transitions;
  • compensate disadvantaged populations where emission-reduction policies have regressive distributional impacts, ideally with measures that directly help people to reduce their emissions.
Figure 6: Adapted from the “Summary of headline findings from Oxfam and SEI’s new research” figure in Gore, T., Alestig, M., & Ratcliff, A. (2020).15

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

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