Climate Justice and its role in policy for infrastructure planning

Source: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

We welcome views from others and so are creating a guest blog series. Please get in touch with us if you would like to write a guest blog. 

This is the first in a series of guest blogs from students of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy Masters at University College London. The students are examining Climate Justice and its role in infrastructure planning, a topic that many working in engineering and policy will find relevant to their work. The authors of this blog are Karina Izquierdo Rodriguez, Nupur Dhawan, Danlu Sun, Charlotte Phillips, Zheng Xie and Xinyin Liu. Contents of guest blogs represent the views of the authors.

Part I. What is Climate Justice? (And why does it matter?)

The urban governance of climate change is an increasing concern. The climate crisis poses a threatening challenge ahead that requires a complex and adaptive system change. As international accords,  such as the Paris or Kyoto Agreements, have set the agenda for a sustainable future and governments commit towards being net-zero, much debate has arisen around the financing, design, and governance of such a transition. The focus on cities has been central to this debate as they are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and account for two-thirds of the global energy demand1 even though they only account for 3% of global surfaces2. Factors such as increased population densities, coastal or geographical locations, socio-economic or political, etc., accumulate higher levels of risk and make cities vulnerable to the effects of climate change1. It is in cities that the everyday implications of decisions around planning, service provision and access to resources are felt most acutely. While cities have the potential to contribute to climate change and create and reproduce inequalities, they are also important arenas to advance change.  

This blog post is part of a larger series aimed at exploring: how to incorporate climate justice principles within public policy for the built environment. As engineers work towards addressing the climate crisis, it is important to understand the relationship between the impacts of climate change in a broader sense beyond the physical elements of infrastructure. The role that engineers can play in integrating climate justice principles is fundamental to secure a more sustainable future. More specifically, the project seeks to identify the obstacles to embedding principles such as equality, equity, recognition and justice in policies for sustainable infrastructure. In this first entry of a 3-part series, we will explore what climate justice is, discuss how it relates to urban infrastructure planning; and explore how it can open avenues for more nuanced understandings of the complex interconnections with pre-existing injustices in cities. 

Infrastructure intersects with the individual and becomes personal at the city level and determines people’s daily interactions with space to pursue access to opportunities and resources. Climate injustices exacerbate race, class, or gender issues, which are already at play in cities. We claim that any framework that attempts to address the built environment in a sustainable way needs to recognise this complexity. 

Where are we now?

The current economic model of development, based on extractive activities and linear systems for urban services, has led to a significant deterioration of the environment, particularly the climate system. Between 2010 and 2030, the world population will have increased from 6.1 to 8.1 billion3; by 2050, 84% of the population from developed countries will live in urban areas4. Responding to urbanisation pressures requires building double the existing infrastructure; it is estimated that globally approximately 18 trillion USD would be needed to develop climate-resilient and climate-smart infrastructure over the next few years1.

With a growing global urban population, limited resources, and existing development disparities, inequality is one of the main challenges to address. In low and middle-income countries, 30–50 percent of populations in cities living in informal settlements face unreliable provision, rationed supply or no public provision for infrastructure and services5. Moreover, studies highlight “how women, the poor, racial minorities, and marginalised communities have the worst access to critical infrastructure services”6. This spatial fragmentation translates into the unequal distribution of climate change impacts in daily lived experiences, from extreme heat and fires, flooding, landslides, health risks from exposure to pollutants, and food shortage, to displacement of communities, affecting the poorest the most while increasing their vulnerability7. Addressing the disproportionate effects for vulnerable groups requires urgency; however, studies have shown that “long research time frames are simply inconsistent with advanced just adaptation”8.

This vulnerability is starkly visible in the face of crisis events. As we start appraising recovery strategies from the COVID-19 pandemic, certain aspects of how we build cities and the decision-making process that shapes them must be re-evaluated to support mechanisms that prepare us better for future shocks. Therefore, tangible concepts of public policy that translate into sustainable built environments and a just transition leading into those scenarios are needed. 

Sustainable infrastructure and just transitions?

Ethical issues are frequently omitted from the science-policy discourse in infrastructure. However, these elements are required to confront the status quo for effective climate action9. For example, a common way of articulating climate change adaptation has been through risk and disaster management which “assesses what the likely new dangers are […] and then addresses how governments can prepare for them”10. However, approaching climate planning focusing on the built environment risks reproducing social fragmentation and exacerbating justice, equity, and equality issues. The interactions between ecological sustainability and social equity need to be addressed in policy at  every  stage of the design/response process. We need new approaches and methods that are fit for purpose to tackle these critical issues since failure to do so “often  leads to questions and conflicts over the legitimacy of these efforts [..] and reinforces existing vulnerabilities among already marginalised populations”8

A policy framework for engineering and climate justice?

Despite policy analysts and policy-makers frequently being confronted with moral decisions, ethical frameworks are weak11, and the very nature of much climate action has been inherently unjust12. The challenge lies in finding normative ways in which to integrate social concepts of justice into the process of engineering infrastructures. There is a wide range of documented cases in which infrastructure projects have exacerbated inequalities or even conflict; some examples include dams, airports, ports, transport, coastland and urban developments, and building materials’ extraction and supply chain. This highlights the disconnect between the choices made for physical interventions in the urban field and principles of climate justice, which are  currently  unaccounted for. When it comes to critical infrastructure and the race to net-zero, it becomes even more relevant to think about non-reductionist decision-making models since not all cities have yet succeeded in providing equitable and reliable access for all inhabitants.  

A rights and entitlements approach has the potential to contest the model of cities we want to produce. For a climate just city to be more than a utopian aspiration, transformative change must be achieved in ways that meet the needs of both social and environmental justice for excluded groups and society as a whole. In the next entry, we will cover the principles of climate justice and analyse how they intersect with policy for infrastructure. 


1. Jafry T. Routledge Handbook of Climate Justice. Routledge Handbook of Climate Justice. Routledge, 2018.

2. Williams J. Circular cities. Urban Stud 2019;56:2746–62.

3. Auclair C, Marx B, Stoker T, Suri T, Rasmussen MI. Sustainable Cities: Why They Matter. Sustain Dev Goals 2013;27:28. 

4. Sohag MU, Podder AK. Smart garbage management system for a sustainable urban life: An IoT based application. Internet of Things 2020;11:100255.

5. Dodman D, Satterthwaite D. Institutional capacity, climate change adaptation and the urban poor. IDS Bull 2008;39:67–74.

6. Siemiatycki M, Enright T, Valverde M. The gendered production of infrastructure. Prog Hum Geogr 2020;44:297–314.

7. Dodman D. Urban Density and Climate Change. Development 2009;Ph.D.:1–23. 

8. Malloy JT, Ashcraft CM. A framework for implementing socially just climate adaptation. Clim Change 2020;160:1–14.

9. Nightingale AJ, Eriksen S, Taylor M, Forsyth T, Pelling M, Newsham A, et al. Beyond Technical Fixes: climate solutions and the great derangement. Clim Dev 2020;12:343–52.

10. Schlosberg D. Reconceiving environmental justice: Global movements and political theories. Env Polit 2004;13:517–40.

11. Amy DJ. Why policy analysis and ethics are incompatible. J Policy Anal Manag 1984;3:573–91.

12. Castán Broto V, Westman LK. Ten years after Copenhagen: Reimagining climate change governance in urban areas. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Clim Chang 2020;11:1–22.