Fairness and the environment

This means an environment in which the air and water are clean, very high or low temperatures and other extreme weather events are rare, and everyone has access to nature to support physical and mental health. While this is a global issue, there is an urgent need for domestic action.

Tackling pollution

We must urgently tackle pollution in the UK. Air pollution in particular is harming the health of huge numbers of people, especially children, and it has a disproportionate impact on poorer communities. It is unfair that we do not take more decisive action, and it is unfair than those who are already disadvantaged suffer the most.

A fair transition to net zero

The debate about whether we transition to a decarbonised economy is largely resolved, but the debate over how we transition has only just begun, and will dominate public and political discourse for decades to come. Its central question is how the transition can be made in a way that is fair – in the words of Chris Stark, head of the Climate Change Committee, it is ‘almost the only question’. As we saw with the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France, delivering the transition in a fair way is crucial to securing legitimacy for and efficacy of the transition and building enduring public and political support. The transformation must be rooted in fairness – not only because the poorest communities are least responsible for these crises and invariably the worst affected, but because unless action to restore nature and decarbonise the economy is rooted in social and economic justice, it simply won’t succeed. The public have a veto over the net zero transition and will stop it if it isn't fair and they see no benefits.

We need a just transition to net zero. Supporting low income families through the transition is not just the right thing to do, it is essential for winning the political case and gaining consent for sustained and ambitious climate action.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November 2021

People and planet

The government must recognise and promote the economic case for investing now in a fair transition to net zero, taking account of the enormous financial and environmental costs of inaction as well as the comparatively small costs of implementing the necessary measures now. The same is true of the costs and benefits of climate adaptation (making the necessary changes now to prepare everyone for those impacts that it is no longer possible to avoid, such as more frequent severe flooding and storms), and of acting to reduce the severity of the biodiversity crisis.

These policies must be carefully designed so that the negative impacts on particular groups in society are either prevented or compensated for. For example, workers in fossil fuel industries must be fully supported to retrain and to find work in other areas of the economy, and homeowners and drivers must be supported to transition to greener heating and transport alternatives respectively, so that no one is disadvantaged by the changes needed and no one is locked out by being unable to afford them.

Tackling the climate and nature crises with the necessary speed and ambition must tackle economic and social injustice (and thereby promote fairness) at the same time. These two imperatives are interlinked, and must not be seen as being in opposition to each other. All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation. We should introduce a ‘fairness lock’ for climate and nature policies so that people are fully involved in making decisions, costs are shared fairly, all policies are assessed for fairness, changes are accompanied by the necessary support and funding, and the UK makes a fair contribution on the international stage.

No one can be left out. A fair response to the climate and nature emergencies needs to increase equality in society.

Tees Valley and Country Durham citizens' jury from the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission

What needs to change

Everyone should benefit from a fair transition to net zero. We must make the necessary investments and take the necessary actions now. We can and must ensure that no one loses out as a result in the short term. In the long term, we will all reap the rewards of a healthier environment, a fairer society and a stronger economy.

A range of policy solutions have been proposed for tackling air pollution, including its disproportionate impact on low-income communities. These include:

  • Creating a network of Clean Air Zones across the UK (like the ULEZ in London), to prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most polluted parts of towns and cities
  • Helping people move on to cleaner forms of transport by promoting and subsidising cleaner vehicles, public transport, walking and cycling
  • Introducing a new Clean Air Act to safeguard our right to breathe clean air
  • Reducing the legal limit on levels of particulate air pollution to World Health Organisation limits (UK maximum levels for PM10 and PM2.5 are currently twice as high as the WHO recommends)

A broad range of actors are calling for the UK and other countries to introduce a Green New Deal to redesign the economy, with the aim not only of decarbonising the economy, protecting and restoring nature, reforming food production, providing clean water and air and green spaces for everyone, and creating millions of well-paid, secure and future-proof jobs (with livelihood guarantees for all those working in high-emission sectors), but also of transforming the economy more fundamentally to focus on health, fairness and community (‘serving the needs of people and planet’).

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report sets out a comprehensive range of policies that will fully decarbonise the economy, by reducing our demand for energy by 60%, replacing fossil fuels with zero carbon alternatives, and changing our agricultural systems to balance out the remaining 8% of emissions from non-energy processes (such as cement production or methane from livestock) by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through natural carbon capture from forests and restored peatlands. For example, it describes how better housing insulation and temperature controls would reduce energy demand for heating by around 50%, and how reducing how much we travel and changing how we travel would reduce energy demand for transport by 78%.

The final report of the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, Fairness and Opportunity, makes 109 recommendations on how to achieve a fair transition to net zero, covering a wide range of FF focus issues (such as democracy, work, wealth and housing). For example:

  • They argue that to decarbonise transport, we cannot simply replace petrol and diesel cars with electric cars (which still create pollution and require lots of resources to manufacture); we need to reduce the need for travel by promoting ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ where most services that people need are within a walk, cycle or bus ride, and we need more affordable, convenient, joined up and quick public transport; meanwhile, investment decisions about transport need to prioritise tackling inequality, recognising for example that people in the lowest income households are half as likely to use cars as those with a higher income
  • They call for a new ‘GreenGO’ grant and loan scheme to retrofit houses with insulation and green heating, provided by central government and made available through every high street bank across the country; for a requirement that new homes are ‘properly assessed for their environmental impact, to ensure they add rather than detract from the local environment and for them to be energy efficient and low carbon from the get-go’; and for changes to the legal requirements for minimum energy efficiency standards in socially and privately rented homes
  • They set out plans for more government support for people working in polluting industries or whose jobs are otherwise affected by decarbonisation to retrain and learn new skills so that they can move into new jobs (a funded ‘right to retrain’), and estimate that tackling the climate and nature crises will create around 1.7 million new jobs by 2035 (in particular in retrofitting existing houses and building new social housing), but that unless investment is targeted to tackle regional inequalities, these opportunities will not be spread fairly across the country

A citizens’ assembly on climate, set up by six House of Commons select committees, was held in 2020 to show how a representative sample of the population believe the UK should deliver its 2050 net zero target. Their report set out over 50 recommendations on surface transport, air travel, heat and energy use in the home, food and land use, what we buy, generating electricity, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and a green recovery from the COVID pandemic. Fairness (across sectors, geographies, incomes and health) was one of four key recurring themes in the assembly’s discussions.

A coalition of organisations has called for the introduction of a frequent flyer levy, under which everyone would be able to take one flight per year tax-free, but with an increasing level of air passenger duty levied on flights after that. This is designed to reflect the fact that 70% of flights from the UK are made by 15% of the population, with 57% not flying abroad at all, and therefore that the fairest way to tax air travel is to focus on the top 1% while making it easier for poorer families to afford one overseas holiday per year.

The former Bank of England governor Mark Carney has urged governments to step up their regulation of businesses to tackle the climate crisis because the financial free markets will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions alone. He argues that businesses will however respond rapidly to a clear policy direction set by governments, as happened with investments by Nissan and Vauxhall in electric car production in the UK after the government promised to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.