In 1991, the moral and political philosopher John Rawls stipulated that ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought’. In other words, when decisions are first made about how a society is organised, the first priority is to ensure that these decisions are just. Climate change, much like society, is fundamentally and intrinsically a justice dilemma.

Climate change is a global issue, yet the impacts and burdens are neither shared equally nor fairly within different groups in society. Without careful consideration, the response to ongoing and future anthropogenic climate change may perpetuate inequalities. Whilst global in nature, the impacts of these inequalities are experienced at varying scales – and the built environment is no exception.

Within the built environment, exclusive climate planning and design may perpetuate social fragmentation and environmental degradation whilst exacerbating issues of justice, equity, and equality. Adopting an economic and equitable approach to energy supply and demand, conversely, will help to alleviate issues of energy-poverty and poor air quality. Climate-resilient building design may positively affect mental health by reducing the likelihood of displacement from extreme weather events in the future.

In recent years, the urgency for a low-carbon and climate resilient transition has gained traction, with increasing calls for net zero decarbonisation route maps, building adaptation for climate change, and the setting of Science-Based Targets within the sector. Such a transition is not without complexities – positing technological, political, generational, and financial questions amongst others. Incorporating principles of justice and equity remains difficult yet necessary; especially where the intersectionality of climate justice in the built environment is all too frequently omitted from the discourse.

So how can we assert this into the discourse? How can we take steps towards just climate mitigation and adaptation measures? How can we deliver a climate-positive future in the urban context?

  • Climate justice considerations should occur throughout the project life-cycle, at planning, design, construction, and operational phases
  • At project inception, clearly defining and recognising rights and responsibilities is integral
  • Materiality assessments for climate positive frameworks must not only consider the communities and individuals systematically included within the narrative, but who is systematically excluded, and by whom
  • Rather than solely considering the distribution of resources, we must also address climate-related burdens, in addition to questions of procedural justice
  • Just principles must account for the entire design life of the project, accounting for inter-generational needs
  • Regulatory and legislative frameworks at the governmental, local and industry level should be employed to ensure a just approach within built environment projects. (Where appropriate, these should be critiqued and evaluated to drive policy changes ensure a fairer outcome for all)

Today, more than 50% of the world’s population reside in urban areas. This figure is projected to reach 70% by 2050. The built environment is therefore pivotal to the lives of many communities and individuals; and remains central to climate adaptation and mitigation.

Our future cities must be inclusive and equitable for all. From 2020, we must ensure that justice becomes the “first virtue” of the built environment.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated

Photo of Ellen Salter
Ellen Salter

Ellen Salter is a Sustainability Consultant within Arup’s Environmental Consulting Team. Ellen has experience across a diverse range of multidisciplinary projects within both the public and private sector. Her experience includes sustainability strategy, sustainable construction, carbon management and assessment, and the circular economy. She has particular interest in the role of climate justice within the built environment and the role of inclusive climate action planning to create equitable futures for all


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