‘Leaving No-One Behind’ in Urban Climate Actions

Home to an increasing majority of the world’s population, cities are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and rising inequality. While it is recognised that these challenges need to be tackled together, one can also witness a growing awareness of the trade-offs that can occur in cases when urban climate projects insufficiently cater for the needs of vulnerable communities. Mathilde Bouyé and Delfina Grinspan outline how climate projects need to be designed in order to leave no one behind.

Last year, at the Global Climate Action Summit, 32 large cities, members of C40, endorsed an ‘equity pledge’ to advance inclusive climate actions. Their statement recalls how important it is to understand the commitment to “leave no one behind” as a driving principle in climate transitions. Central to the 2030 Agenda, this commitment is little known by climate experts, yet it could help cities achieve greater social equity through their climate interventions.

There is growing evidence that urban climate actions can reproduce and even exacerbate conditions of social injustice if they leave climate risks and green amenities unevenly distributed across neighbourhoods. Our literature review for a forthcoming paper by the World Resources Institute and the Overseas Development Institute (WRI-ODI) on climate action and social equity highlights three types of socially regressive impacts of climate projects:

1) neglect of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and their residents’ needs, resulting in low benefits for their communities; 2) disproportionate displacement of poor residents to manage climate risks or locate new green infrastructures; and 3) green gentrification in historically underserved neighbourhoods.

The ‘leave-no-one behind’ pledge can help urban planners deliberately and effectively plan for social equity and avoid these negative outcomes. This commitment precisely aims to address the root causes that keep millions locked out of progress. The 2030 agenda provides strong guidance to turn this ambition into action.

Setting Human Development and Poverty and Inequality Reduction as End Goals of Urban Climate Action

The ‘leave-no-one’ behind pledge derives from a recognition that development gains have been very unequally distributed over the past decades. Guided by a human-rights and capabilities approach to development, this promise requires protecting and realising all the economic, social, political, cultural, and civic rights and freedoms to which human beings are entitled so that they can all ‘fulfil their potential in dignity and equality’. Through this pledge, world leaders committed to end poverty – especially extreme poverty – and reduce inequality by 2030.

Setting the explicit objective to reduce structural inequality and provide equal opportunities for all is of paramount importance in urban climate projects. Lessons learned highlight that negative impacts for low-income residents are often due to profit motives, including real-estate development, rent-seeking strategies, tourism growth, and destruction of informal settlements.

Strong leadership is needed to prioritise social goals over short-term gains. Clear frameworks for private sector engagement need to be set, since investors can see climate interventions (such as adaptive land-use and energy retrofits) as opportunities to extract greater value out of the housing stock.

Identifying Who Is at Risk to Be Left Behind

One of the key requirements laid down in the 2030 Agenda to achieve this ambition is to identify those left behind, using disaggregated data “by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts” (SDG target 17.18).

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines, “people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses”. Understanding what attributes make residents vulnerable to climate action is a condition for designing climate interventions that do not harm disadvantaged groups and that address the root causes of inequality.

Ending all Forms of Discrimination

To leave no one behind, the 2030 Agenda also requires policy planners to proactively combat all forms of discrimination and adopt new policy and legal instruments to enforce equal access to rights and opportunities. In the context of urban climate planning, there is a particularly strong need for fairer enforcement of adaptive land-use regulations and for independent studies on climate risk mitigation and green infrastructure development to avoid disproportionate evictions of poor and disadvantaged groups.

Solutions enabling discriminated groups to shape and benefit from climate projects need to be included early on in climate project design. These can entail capacity building to enable disempowered communities to advocate for their needs, access for people with disability, and safety measures to protect women and people of colour (e.g. women-only cars in Bus Rapid Transit; improved lighting for bike paths and bike docking stations in underserved neighbourhoods).

Prioritising the Poorest and Most Vulnerable in Climate Actions

The most significant innovation brought by the ‘leave no one behind’ pledge is probably the commitment to prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable in all policy making: to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first”. This prioritisation aims to tackle existing discrimination and enable those chronically underserved to progress at a faster rate than those who are better off.

Prioritising poor and disadvantaged communities can significantly change the ways urban climate interventions are planned: it means channelling financial resources to historically underserved neighbourhoods through innovative approaches (for example impact investments; special bonds), prioritising social housing that caters primarily to the needs of low-income residents, and favouring the creation of new ‘commons’ (such as shared public bus systems and community renewable energy projects) that provide more affordable and effective services over developers’ short-term interests.

Engaging Poor and Marginalised Residents

Procedural justice is a major condition for equitable climate actions in cities. Business-as-usual forms of consultations, with questionnaires and meetings facilitated by elite groups or project engineers, often fail in engaging poor and disadvantaged groups, and exacerbate power asymmetries. Good practices include community-based planning with the leadership of neighbourhood groups and partnerships with local NGOs and universities that value local knowledge. The “leave-no-one-behind” pledge does not mean simply providing people with resources to satisfy their needs but ensuring that they can be choice-makers in policies that impact their own lives.

Mathilde Bouyé
Latest posts by Mathilde Bouyé (see all)
    Delfina Grinspan
    Latest posts by Delfina Grinspan (see all)