Climate Justice: Future milestone or essential part of business planning?

Communities that bear the greatest burden of climate change impacts are often those that have contributed the least to the problem.

Many of these communities comprise the smallholder farmers and workers who produce some of the world’s largest agri-commodities, including cocoa, coffee, tea, palm oil and sugar. The changing climate has clear environmental impacts — it also exacerbates existing social and economic inequities.

Climate justice is about working at the intersection of the social, economic and environmental inequities that are tied up in climate change. When an organization takes a human-centered approach to human rights and development, it aims to include the voices of the most vulnerable and safeguard their rights.

Many businesses remain hesitant to incorporate climate justice in their sustainability strategies, and instead including it in their diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) agendas. When we consider DEI within the context of an overall sustainability strategy, however, we ensure that the voices of those most affected are present in the space where climate-related decisions are made. This helps businesses deliver greater impact that contributes to the resilience of these communities and their own operations.

Vulnerabilities to climate change are complex and wide-ranging in the case of agricultural commodities. They are influenced by where the crop is grown (country or specific regions), the market price for the commodity, the power dynamic in the supply chain, and the level of government support available to those impacted.

For example, a heatwave will have a completely different impact on female cotton farmers in India than on a male cotton farmer in Australia coping with forest fires and lack of rain. This diversity of vulnerability makes it difficult for companies to account for specific stakeholder groups when determining how to share the burdens of climate change and benefits of climate change policies such as net zero, for example.

Climate justice … may be a challenge for many in business. It is not as closely related to business activities, such as better wages or better incomes, and it requires investment in areas that may or may not be directly related to business operations.

Companies sourcing commodities at risk of causing deforestation, including beef, palm, soy, cocoa and others have understood this for some time now, and perhaps better than other sectors. As U.K. country director for IDH — the Sustainable Trade Initiative, an organization working with public-private partnerships to realize sustainable trade in global value chains, I have the privilege of working closely not only with these companies, but also with governments of commodity-producing countries and civil society.

IDH’s work convening the Smallholder Support Working Group as part of the U.K. government’s FACT Dialogue in 2021, leading up to COP26 in Glasgow highlighted the longstanding vocal and active presence of indigenous groups in discussions on deforestation and land rights. In fact, the FACT roadmap specifically calls for financial support to “increase productivity in a sustainable way, reduce vulnerability and increase resilience to climate change, market shocks and other major risks to livelihoods” based on input from indigenous and youth groups.

This call from governments is bolstered by business commitments, such as The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Forest Positive Coalition of Action, and practical tools such as IDH’s SourceUp. This platform connects agri-commodity companies with more than 20 multi-stakeholder initiatives in jurisdictions committed to sustainable production and inclusive governance of sensitive forest areas.

Ultimately, the real solutions to climate change will come from those most impacted by it. It is important that we honor those voices. The Mary Robinson Foundation is widely recognized for amplifying the voices of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, for example by connecting grassroots women-led initiatives in G40 cities and countries with policy makers and world leaders. The COP26 Coalition organized 806 actions for climate justice globally in the run-up to COP26. Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has shaped national conversations in the U.S. around education reform through her work on racial segregation in American society and her role in the 1619 Project. All of these efforts either center vulnerable and marginalized populations in a manner that is unique, provide historical perspective within which current efforts of inclusion are based or provide frameworks for measuring impact.

Business can take action in four specific ways:

  1. Work with expert partners to identify and include the right stakeholders in your decision-making. For example, building the resilience of farmers by contributing to a living income, working with partners who can elevate smallholder voices. And once you’ve identified and included the right stakeholders — really listen and heed their advice.
  2. Work with your peers to make pre-competitive collaboration the norm to achieve quick progress. No single company can solve all the issues impacting those most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Such collaboration can also be implemented under the umbrella of a so-called “landscape approach” where climate justice is centered in the planning process.
  3. Leverage new technology that provides avenues for inclusion that were previously impossible. It can serve as a tool to elevate the needs of particularly vulnerable voices, by allowing them to directly draw attention to specific issues. For example, the Stop Cambo campaign in Scotland used social tools to bring the voices of young people and grassroots activists to bear on the fossil fuel debate. Tech can also provide a way for collecting and disseminating data that supports the lived experience of marginalized groups.
  4. Use rapid pilots to gather data and be open to changing your approach as you go. Recognize that a non-traditional approach to consultation, planning, implementation, learning and iteration may be required. True impact can be achieved by recognizing that a just transition cannot be delivered without a fundamental change in business models.

Businesses should do their due diligence to identify the communities in their supply chains that are most at risk to the impacts of climate change and work alongside them to adapt and build resilience. Climate justice as a concept may be a challenge for many in business. It is not as closely related to business activities, such as better wages or better incomes, and it requires investment in areas that may or may not be directly related to business operations. But what’s clear is that unless companies join in creating solutions now, their very business may be in jeopardy.

Farmers and workers most affected by climate change have already shown the ability to adapt by focusing on good agricultural practices, agroecology and equitable, inclusive and sustainable land rights and management. That’s why it is imperative that we don’t just take their views into account while designing the future, but that we learn and work alongside them. It is only then that it can be just.

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