Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Scientists Take a Stand for Environmental Justice Targets

By Mary Mazzoni
people gather fire wood in the forest in Sierra Leone - environmental justice targets needed to fight inequality

People gather firewood in a forest in Sierra Leone. 

We've all heard about the global push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which scientists agree is critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But this goal alone is not enough to safeguard humanity from the harmful consequences of a warming climate, diminishing biodiversity and increasingly degraded ecosystems. To ensure those most vulnerable do not take the brunt of these impacts, climate plans must also include environmental justice targets, according to seminal research on the topic. 

The Earth Commission, an international team of natural and social scientists and five working groups of additional experts, was formed in 2019 in an effort to create "the first holistic attempt to scientifically define and quantify a safe and just corridor for people and planet," according to the organization. 

Last week at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, the Commission announced the upcoming launch of its first piece of research, which it describes as the first quantitative, science-based attempt to factor justice into the way we understand the environment and act to protect it. 

The research, which will be published in the coming months, defines what the Commission calls “safe and just Earth System Boundaries." Researchers liken these boundaries to the 1.5-degree cap for climate, but for a much broader set of environmental factors that underpin the stability of societies, economies and human well-being. 

“By centering justice at its heart, this new science represents a quantum leap in our ability to understand Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and the role we humans play as guardians of our only home and each other," Johan Rockström and Joyeeta Gupta, two of the three co-chairs of the Commission and lead authors of the research, wrote in a blog last week

The world is on a collision course with 1.5 degrees Celsius 

To say we as a global community have our work cut out for us is an understatement. Even as researchers with the Earth Commission challenge countries, localities and companies to think more broadly with their environmental plans, we're already falling short of the primary target we all agreed upon: the push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius under the globally ratified Paris Agreement on climate change.   

According to some estimates, a strong El Niño pattern could push the world past the 1.5-degree threshold as soon as next year. Researchers warn the results could be catastrophic. 

"If the world breaches 1.5C, we are likely to trigger at least five tipping points, including the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and loss of the world’s tropical coral reef systems," Rockström and Gupta wrote in their blog. "This will be devastating for future generations. It will literally change the world, and yet every month we use 1 percent of the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C."

Environmental justice targets are needed — not only for the most vulnerable, but for everyone 

From deadly flooding in Pakistan to devastating droughts across the Horn of Africa, it's clear the impacts of climate change are not felt equally.

U.N. research found that 90 percent of deaths from natural disasters over a 20-year period from 1996 to 2015 occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Further, people in lower-income countries are more likely to depend on nature for their livelihoods, leaving them more vulnerable as ecosystems degrade. 

Even in developed countries, lower-income people are most affected by disasters and natural resource depletion: As a reminder, the mostly Black city of Jackson, Mississippi, still does not have access to reliable clean water, with poorer neighborhoods facing the worst of the ongoing crisis.

It's factors like these that drove the formation of the Earth Commission and the push from researchers in favor of environmental justice targets. “Planetary stability is not possible without a justice approach,” Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, told the Guardian

The so-called Earth System Boundaries defined in the research seek to maintain a stable environment while setting minimum levels of access to resources like food, water and energy that ensure a "dignified life" for all.  

"The initial papers are expected to launch a debate about the fairest as well as the safest way to use the planet’s remaining space for development," observed Jonathan Watts, global environment editor of the Guardian. "Or in the cases where boundaries have already been crossed, to minimize impacts."

The researchers underscore that establishing environmental justice targets is not a form of charity from rich to poor. Rather, environmental justice targets are critical to protect people all over the world — and future generations. 

"This breakthrough science, which moves beyond climate, can be operationalized by everyone," Rockström and Gupta wrote. "If we do nothing, or the bare minimum at this pivotal moment, we and our children — even if they are wealthy — will live in a danger zone." 

Image credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni