Reframing Climate Justice: Low Income Countries and the Energy Transition

In the run-up to the 2021 UN Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow, I co-authored this important new report with eight other energy and development experts from across Africa and the US on “Reframing Climate Justice for Development: Six Principles for Supporting Inclusive and Equitable Energy Transitions in Low-Emitting Energy-Poor African Countries“.

The full report can be accessed here. Summary below:

Advancing inclusive and equitable energy transitions is one of this century’s most vital global challenges, and one in which development finance will play a crucial role. References to justice and equity are widespread in international climate policy, and are increasingly being used by development organizations to guide their own work, including support for energy transitions.

But prevailing definitions of climate justice rarely fully capture the priorities, challenges and perspectives of low-emitting energy-poor countries, the vast majority of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. When applied to development policy, this gap risks prioritizing near-term emissions reductions over broader support for economic development and energy transformation, with comparatively little climate benefit. This could severely hinder poverty alleviation, development, and climate resilience — the very opposite of justice. We need energy transitions that are truly ‘just and inclusive.’ What does this mean for development funders and financiers, and how should it drive their approach to supporting energy transitions in the lowest-income countries?

Why do we need to reframe climate justice for development?

  1. Because low-emitting energy-poor countries face unique challenges: Since they are energy-poor, they produce extremely low emissions per capita. Power is often too unreliable and expensive to enable job creation. These countries have contributed very little to climate change, but are among the most vulnerable to its impacts.
  2. Because prevailing definitions of climate justice rarely address energy poverty: Terms like ‘environmental justice,’ ‘climate justice,’ the ‘just transition,’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ are important and valuable. But few of them address energy poverty explicitly or fully account for the ambitions of low-emitting energy-poor countries.
  3. Because climate justice must achieve just and equitable energy outcomes: In addition to decarbonization, energy transitions in low-emitting energy-poor countries must: [1] provide universal electricity access; [2] power job creation and economic diversification; [3] enhance climate resilience; and [4] set the stage for a prosperous low-carbon future.

We propose six basic principles to help development funders support inclusive and equitable energy transitions in the poorest countries:

  1. Diversity: Adopt flexible policies and country-specific approaches.
  2. Agency: Prioritize African-owned ambitions and plans, and align external support.
  3. Ambition: Aim much higher than universal household access.
  4. Resilience: Prioritize energy solutions for climate adaptation.
  5. Innovation: Invest in emerging solutions, but beware of naive ‘leapfrogging.’
  6. Equity: Treat the remaining global carbon budget as a ‘development budget.’

Climate policy must reflect and respond to the needs and ambitions of those most impacted, and integrate a wider variety of perspectives on the meaning of justice and fairness. These six principles will help chart a pathway for development funders to better support low-emitting energy-poor countries — and help secure the dignity and opportunity of billions currently shut out of international climate decision-making.

On the sidelines of COP-26 in Glasgow, the paper formed the basis of a panel discussion co-hosted by the OECD Development Centre and the Carnegie Endowment’s Africa Program. The video is available here.

We also had another panel discussion on the sidelines of COP-26 hosted by the Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy School. It was on “Mobilizing Private Capital for Climate Action in Emerging Markets”. Video below.

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