By Katerina Panagi
Transforming our world toward sustainability requires understanding environmental degradation and climate change as social and political issues.
Adopting an eco-social lens in policy design and implementation can facilitate not only green but also fair approaches that will be required to achieve the SDGs. It would help minimize the risk of injustice associated with green economy policies, and redress the distributional impacts of environmental and climate change policies in favour of vulnerable groups.
An eco-social policy mix brings together participatory governance and decision making, progressive social policies and environmental regulation with local initiatives and innovations to promote equitable and sustainable outcomes.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing development as we know it. Decades of progress risk being reversed, and existing efforts to eradicate poverty nullified, if countries cannot work together effectively to limit global warming and manage the consequences of climate change.
Climate change challenges the very foundations of a global economic system that is based on carbon fuelled growth, a system that is incompatible with environmental sustainability. It forces us to recognize the reciprocal interlinkages and feedbacks of complex social-ecological-economic systems which require innovative new thinking, science, policy and practice for sustainability.
While attention to both climate change and sustainable development has risen in recent decades, the focus has been primarily on environmental and economic dimensions and technological fixes. This approach has not worked. As this essay shows, climate change is fundamentally a social and political issue. Social dimensions, including the politics of transformative change, are crucial for understanding both the drivers of climate change and its impacts, as well as necessary responses to address the problem in an equitable way.
Climate change is a social and a political issue
Climate change–related risks increase as a function of both the increasing number and intensity of environmental hazards and levels of socioeconomic vulnerability and exposure. Rapid urbanization processes, for example, lead to growing numbers of settlements in highly flood- and storm-exposed coastal zones and low-lying areas.
A large number of these fast-growing settlements comprise precarious infrastructure and are often inhabited by people in vulnerable situations. The risks and social costs associated with environmental and climate change are very unevenly distributed and closely linked to structural inequalities which leave disadvantaged people and communities more exposed and vulnerable to climate impacts. Women and children are often disproportionately affected. However, the responsibility for climate change is often attributed to those countries that are less affected or better prepared to cope with negative impacts, but have emitted the main share of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the course of industrialization.
Economic development and climate change are linked to the extent that per capita CO2 emissions increase with GDP per capita (that is, rich countries emit more). Climate change is thus fraught with a double injustice that leaves those least responsible for global warming incurring the highest social cost. A similar situation applies to rich and poor countries or regions.
Differences in disaster risk reduction capacities become evident when comparing the percentage distribution of weather-related loss events with the percentage distribution of their impacts. Asia, for example, experienced 30 per cent of the events but suffered 69 per cent of fatalities. In contrast, North America, with 25 per cent of events, experienced 7 per cent of fatalities. Similarly, the solutions employed to address climate change, whether technology-based or not, have differing impacts for different groups of people.
Promoting green economy to achieve universal and sustainable energy access
Many green economy policies and projects deal with the provision of biofuels and renewable energy. Getting energy provision right—in terms of shifting to sustainable energy production and energy consumption—is crucial as it holds the potential to mitigate climate change by shifting from fossil fuel sources to renewables and to support social and economic development by providing universal access to sustainable energy.
An estimated 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity while over 2.7 billion people rely on traditional biomass for cooking. One consequence of this is that women and children, in particular, face serious health impacts from indoor air pollution. Access to clean energy would improve their health and improve gender equality as it would reduce women’s and girls’ unpaid care and domestic work.
Many developing countries are promoting energy policies to increase generation capacities and “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” (SDG 7). In the case of India, which is expected to be one of the key driving forces of increasing global energy demand, the above case studies can inform decisions for sustainable and inclusive energy policies. India has ambitious plans to expand energy generation and increase the share of renewables by promoting solar, wind and hydropower, and through its National Policy on Biofuels. Past experience has demonstrated that the implementation of renewable energy projects can have negative environmental and social consequences and, at times, generate strong popular opposition. Adopting social and technical innovations in energy projects can be a way to achieve eco-social benefits.
One social innovation, for example, consists of leasing rather than buying land from farmers for rural solar installations. This not only reduces project costs but also engages farmers as “partners in development”. The introduction of “solar double cropping” constitutes a simple technical innovation. This involves the installation of solar panels that are spaced out and placed at a height that permits the land underneath to be used for agricultural purposes. This technique is expected to lower irrigation needs by better retaining soil moisture and to reduce heat stress in crops and livestock.
Eco-social policy integration can overcome tensions between different goals and factors
Adopting an eco-social lens to promote integrated policy design can foster more coherent approaches to climate change resilience through the adoption of transformative social policies and environmentally sound policies and practices. Integrating social dimensions more consistently into green economy approaches can also support climate change adaptation efforts as it will lead to improved adaptive capacities and more equitable participation in the transformation process. Adopting a rights-based approach can resolve tensions between different actors and reduce social impacts, for example, through ensuring and protecting access to land. Policies need to take an eco-social rationale in order to promote equality, redistribution and empowerment, as well as environmental protection.
Transformative change will require inclusive institutions and an enabling environment for social innovation
Enabling transformative change will require inclusive institutions and governance regimes that allow those most susceptible to the double or triple injustice sufficient voice and influence in decision-making processes that inevitably produce winners and losers. Policy makers need to promote and provide an enabling environment for social innovations— for example, behavioural changes in consumption patterns or collective action associated with SSE— that integrate protection of the environment with sustainable livelihood strategies. Social movements and participation will be crucial in urging governments and businesses to tackle tensions and trade-offs and deliver on the promise of an inclusive, fair and transformative 2030 Agenda.
Katerina Panagi is a full-time Project Manager and Researcher at an independent, non-profit, non-governmental, research and development organization based in Cyprus. She is also a part-time Journalist who believes in lifelong learning. Her ambitions are to advance her skills, knowledge and herself as much as she can, and also to volunteer and gain further experience.