Climate justice is more important than ever both in mitigation and adaptation

New IPCC report covers climate justice and equity as more pressing issues than before, but it is not easy to evaluate if justice is reached.

Climate justice and ethics of human responses to climate change have previously been raised in IPCC reports in relation to the (economic distribution of) responsibility to mitigate. Social unrest surrounding climate change mitigation policies’ potential to deepen socio-economic inequalities has underscored the importance of a just transition. For example, the 2018-2019 Yellow Vests protests in France initially stemmed from the concern that climate policies hit the poor the hardest by increasing fuel prices (see e.g., Martiskainen et al., 2021). Parallel to this, expenditures on adaptation have been demonstrated to be more wealth-driven instead of need-driven (see e.g., Georgeson et al., 2016), leading to exacerbated inequalities if policies neglect the principle of justice.

The latest AR6 WG2 presents an important change in their climate justice approach by introducing the concept of equitable adaptation. This involves raising justice into a pivotal role as one of the three key criteria of successful adaptation: efficiency, justness, feasibility (Ch 1.4.1).  

The concept of justice is divided into three categories that are widely used in literature: distributive and procedural justice, and justice as recognition (see e.g. Schlosberg 2007, Schlosberg & Collins 2014). In recent literature, a fourth category of restorative justice is sometimes used (see e.g. Robinson & Carlson 2021), but this is not mentioned in the AR6 WG2. Naturally, all these categories are interconnected.

In the context of climate adaptation, distributive justice refers to fair distribution of costs and benefits. Procedural justice refers to possibilities to participate in the adaptation process: in an ideal case, everyone affected can participate. Justice as recognition refers to recognizing all relevant social groups and their different needs. These groups can include e.g. young, elderly, immigrants, or indigenous people.

In a recently submitted research article, we develop an index for ex ante analysis of climate justice in the context of adaptation. The index includes 18 indicators, four for recognitional and restorative justice and five for distributive and procedural justice, respectively. We applied the index by analysing climate adaptation strategies and plans of four cities and countries: Helsinki, London, Stockholm, Vancouver, Finland, England, Sweden and Canada.

Based on our results, recognitional and restorative justice are the least accounted for in adaptation strategies and planning processes. This is not surprising, especially when it comes to restorative justice, which is still a relatively new and theoretical concept. Recognitional climate justice too has only recently gained attention, which may explain the absence of it in adaptation policy documents. However, this is suboptimal, since without recognition it is improbable that distribution and procedures are truly just.

All of the case examples scored best for procedural justice. However, none scored full points, which is mainly due to lack of diversity in representation and depth in participation. Thus, as mentioned in a previous blog post, the meaningfulness of the participation remains unclear or unsure. Lack of meaningful participation increases the risk of misinterpreting the needs of the social groups that don’t have access to the adaptation process.  

Our results and the new IPCC report point in the same direction. Now when the importance of the justice and equity dimension is clear, we should focus on how to apply and evaluate it in practice. 

This is the fourth post in our AR6 WGII-related blog series where we highlight some interesting new approaches in the field of climate risk and adaptation research. Read the previous post from here.

Janina Käyhkö is an university lecturer and Milja Heikkinen is a doctoral researcher in Urban Environmental Research group. Ákos Gosztonyi is a doctoral researcher in the Sustainable Urban Systems research group, cooperating with UEP.


Georgeson, L., Maslin, M., Poessinouw, M. and Howard, S. (2016) Adaptation responses to climate change differ between global megacities. Nature climate change, (6): pp. 584-588. 

Martiskainen, M., Sovacool, B. K, Lacey-Barnacle, M., Hopkins, D., Jenkins, K. E. H., Simcock, N., Mattioli, G. and Bouzarovski, S. (2021) New Dimensions of Vulnerability to Energy and Transport Poverty. Joule, 5(1). pp.3-7.

Robinson, S.A. and Carlson, D.A., 2021. A just alternative to litigation: applying restorative justice to climate-related loss and damage. Third World Quarterly, pp.1-12. (Open access)

Schlosberg, D. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. (Vol. 9780199286). 

Schlosberg, D., & Collins, L. B. 2014. From environmental to climate justice: Climate change and the discourse of environmental justice. WIREs Climate Change, 5(3), 359–374.