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April 2022 – Global warming increases inequality, but the solutions we deploy to solve it must not. This means supporting a just transition to a low carbon world for all – especially the poorest and most marginalized communities who are the most vulnerable to climate change.

What is climate justice? It’s the idea of a just approach to climate action and a fair, inclusive transition to a global net zero society. For example, climate change causes drought, which further aggravates poor people’s limited access to potable water. It’s a concept used widely by NGOs, researchers, and decision-makers to address climate-related social injustices. But have companies taken note? While many are starting to recognize the negative impact they have on the climate, far too few are connecting that impact to the social problems they cause – from access to clean water and food, to sustainable livelihoods and education.

Today, in celebration of Earth Day, we want to point out what responsible businesses should keep in mind, to ensure climate justice for all.

We must champion local voices of our ecosystems

The effects of global warming have disproportionately impacted the underprivileged in developing countries, such as Indigenous communities, who tend to follow low-carbon lifestyles and have historically done the least in stoking the fire of the climate crisis. While enduring extreme climatic events, like floods and fires, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) currently protect and nurture 80% of the planet’s biological diversity, and are key players in protecting our Earth’s natural resources. To achieve an equitable and inclusive climate transition, it is critical that the voices of the communities defending our planet’s ecosystems are heard.

For example, the Canadian Boreal forest is known as a carbon storehouse, with carbon rich soil that absorbs at least 12% of the world’s terrestrial carbon emissions. It has been home to the First Nations communities for centuries, who use the forest’s resources in their traditions and day-to-day lives for food, clothing, and medicine. While Indigenous peoples such as the First Nations have known for time immemorial how to protect their forests, marginalization has slashed the resources at their disposal to guard against threats such as mining, agricultural encroachment, or the increased industrial efforts to cut down these trees, disrupting the livelihood of these communities.

In many places around the world, oil pipelines still cut through fragile ecosystems and Indigenous lands due to lax environmental regulation, violating human rights and posing significant health risks. One oil leak, and their lands and waters are ruined for decades. The development of oil rigs, pipelines, and fossil fuel-burning factories chip away at the scant carbon budget the world has left to meet global climate goals, but they also subject marginalized communities to poor air quality, contaminated water, polluted lands and damaged cultural sites. The climate justice movement aims to rectify these injustices by giving underrepresented people more say in what gets developed in their own communities.

One way that ambitious companies can take action today is by addressing deforestation and biodiversity loss in the value chains, and by investing in credible forest protection projects that allow IPLCs to protect their forests against destructive land-use practices.

Inclusive climate solutions can support climate justice

At South Pole, our regional projects teams work closely with local communities in developing and implementing projects that deliver a wide range of measurable benefits, aligned to the UN’s SDGs. Collaboration is key to the success of our climate action projects, with communities encouraged to take the lead in developing solutions, from protecting forests to establishing regenerative agricultural practices on degraded lands.

Spearheaded by the efforts of 74 indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon rainforest, the Vaupés Indigenous Reserve is a prime example of IPLCs leading on collective climate action through the framework of REDD+. Protecting an incredible 809,664 hectares of biodiverse rainforest, the project focuses on the strengthening of indigenous governance, preservation of traditional knowledge and development of forest-friendly livelihoods. With community ownership at the heart of the project, the indigenous people of Vaupés are supported in protecting their ancestral lands and preserving the Amazonian rainforest for decades to come.

We recognize that climate change is an inherently social issue. There is also a growing understanding around the importance of a project’s social benefits under the UN’s SDGs. Leading carbon standards, such as Verra, equally recognize this, launching the new SD Vista Program which promises to “support projects that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

South Pole has recently registered its first project under the label– ‘Lighting the Night’– certifying the multiple benefits solar projects can bring to remote communities in India. Down the line, we will work with communities from the ground up – developing more SD Vista certified projects and combating climate injustices effectively.

We won’t win unless we all win

Climate change is a multi-faceted issue that requires multi-faceted solutions. It is deeply rooted in intersectionality and we have to think beyond our carbon and net zero targets to help our planet and protect all people on it, not just the richest.

True leadership is acknowledging that transitions are challenging – and we cannot leave anyone behind. Beyond setting climate targets and meeting SDGs, companies need to recognize the connection between their climate strategies and social justice at large to maximize the positive impact of their actions.