The environment and fairness

The environment and fairness

Preventing harm

The government must ensure that adequate policies, laws and regulations are in place to prevent or redress environmental harms, such as high levels of air pollution. Some of these harms might have a disproportionate impact on poorer communities, for example if they are situated near main roads or large industrial sites, and these additional impacts must be fully mitigated.

The government must also take decisive action to decarbonise the economy so as to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and to ensure that the necessary changes are made to prepare everyone for those impacts that it is no longer possible to avoid. The same is true for the biodiversity crisis. These actions 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.

Increasing equality

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. As a citizen’s jury set up by IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission commented, “No one can be left out. A fair response to the climate and nature emergencies needs to increase equality in society.” All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation.

A fairness lock

The Environmental Justice Commission proposes the idea of a ‘fairness lock’ for climate and nature policies, which covers all of the costs and benefits linked to the transition to net zero, guaranteeing:

  • Procedural fairness (people are fully involved in decision making, including those who are most disadvantaged)
  • The fair distribution of costs for consumers and the taxpayer (including carbon pricing that protects those on the lowest incomes)
  • That all policies will be assessed for how they affect and involve places and communities particularly impacted across the UK; different people and communities including by income, age, gender, race and disability; and younger and future generations
  • That help is put in place ahead of change to allay anxieties and maintain public support (for example, households have the means to transition to low-carbon heating systems before regulations come into place)
  • That the UK makes a fair contribution internationally (recognising that there are varying responsibilities and capabilities to respond amongst different countries across the world)

Fairness considerations

Many poorer households live in neighbourhoods that suffer from higher levels of environmental pollution, in particular air pollution, and contain fewer green spaces. This is manifestly unfair as it exacerbates existing inequalities in terms of health outcomes and life chances.

As the fifth largest emitter in the world in terms of total emissions over time, and after hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the UK has a particular responsibility to lead on the global stage on efforts to reach net zero carbon in a rapid, comprehensive and fair way.

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. We need to engage with this debate proactively, because 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.

The debate about a fair transition to net zero spans many of our focus issues, because it is about not just avoiding unfairness arising in the transition itself, but also addressing existing unfairness across our economy and society, in particular:

  • Taxation: How the costs of the transition are distributed fairly for individuals, businesses and the public purse through the tax system
  • Wealth: How expenses like energy bills are regulated and subsidised, and how poorer households are supported to make the necessary changes to their homes, transport and so on
  • Housing: How new homes are built to be zero-carbon from the outset, and how existing housing stock is retrofitted in a fair way
  • Work: How people working in heavily polluting industries are supported to retrain and to find work in other sectors, including in new green industrial parts of the economy
  • Democracy: How people are actively involved in deciding how the wide range of necessary changes are implemented, at both the national and local levels, rather than having changes imposed on them from above

Questions of fairness and the net zero transition also link closely to the debate above levelling up to reduce place-based inequalities. This relates to the distribution of economic investment, the impacts on new and existing jobs, and to who is most affected by the impacts of the climate and nature crises.

Aspects of fairness relating to gender, race and disability are also key, since some people, already disadvantaged by our current economic system, are being impacted disproportionately by the environmental crises and are also at risk from badly managed policy responses.