George Cole, UK Policy Lead for Resource Futures, says that in the wake of COP26 he’s feeling ‘invigorated and exhausted’ as he discusses why he believes climate action must also ensure ‘climate justice’.
The dust has settled following COP26 and, like many people, I’m left feeling invigorated and exhausted, emboldened and frustrated, elated… and occasionally staring down a precipice of despair. Working in the environmental sector I’ve long ago come to terms with harbouring conflicting emotions.
Any casual observer of the proceedings would have thought resources and waste are not relevant to the climate crisis, but those working in the sector know differently.
What is clear, now more than ever, is that climate action needs to happen on so many different fronts, but that action must also ensure climate justice – that the world’s poor and vulnerable communities benefit rather than suffer from the monumental changes ahead.
Why resources and waste are central to tackling the global climate crisis
Global waste management has a significant climate impact as well as affecting the local population’s health and environmental quality. Approximately 3 billion people still lack access to controlled waste disposal – that’s 1 in 3 people on the planet.
The soot from open burning of waste causes major health problems and is up to 5000x stronger than CO2 creating a climate impact equivalent to 2–10% of global CO2Eq emissions. The quantity of mismanaged waste is significant. It is estimated that every minute 60 double-decker busloads of plastic waste are dumped or burned and two people die from preventable diseases caused by mismanaged waste in low and middle income countries.
Solutions must be designed with equality and justice in mind
Global carbon emissions can be split into energy (55%) and the production of goods and management of land (45%). Energy covers energy systems, energy for transportation, and energy for buildings. Production covers industry (material production), agriculture, forestry, and other land use.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that circular economy strategies could help reduce global emissions by 40% by 2050 – addressing the emissions from ‘production’.
So why isn’t more being done?
I’m privileged to work on projects that break down silos to address interrelated issues and support justice for those most affected. Resource Futures works across waste management, marine litter, and circular economy issues.
Our research spans social, environmental, and economic impacts. However, action on the ground requires financial, technical, and legislative support.
Climate finance and impact investment are hot topics, and one of the key pathways to net zero. Development banks, donors and international governmental organisations have been investing in solid waste management, air quality and marine litter issues.
However, we need to tie this all together in a holistic co-ordinated approach and drastically scale up investment. Private sector finance has an important role to play but needs support to make investment opportunities attractive, de-risking projects through local legal and business frameworks, and innovative finance mechanisms.
What do Green recovery and climate justice look like on a global scale?
We can get a sense of this by looking at specific examples. The state of Kerala in India is known for the beauty of its natural environment. Like many locations around the world, it also suffers from considerable waste management issues that threaten the lives and livelihoods of its residents.
Resource Futures worked with the World Bank and the University of Leeds to develop Circular Economy policy and investment in Kerala and analyse their impacts. We found investment and support for waste services could, by 2040, avoid ~400,000 tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste each year that would otherwise be dumped or burnt.
This would save ~500,000 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) each year, and avoid ~14,000 deaths. It would also prevent ~12,000 tonnes of marine litter each year and create ~34,000 jobs.
Elsewhere in India, we have helped develop co-working spaces to improve the health, safety and financial security of some of the world’s most vulnerable waste workers: informal electronic waste dismantlers.
Women often play a key role in waste management and solutions need to consider gender equality
Elsewhere in the world, we are helping to improve the waste management systems in Liberia, a country where less than 50% of people have access to waste management services. We are also working with the Basel Convention Secretariat to help national governments tackle the impacts caused by plastics pollution.
Solutions must be designed with equality and justice in mind. Women often play a key role in waste management and solutions need to consider gender equality, such as the significant contribution by women in the informal waste sector and exposure to harmful chemicals that affect women and children in different ways.
Children are also often found working as informal waste pickers, earning a few dollars a day to work in harmful and dangerous conditions, and robbing them of an education and a childhood.
Work on resources and waste continues to span issues of climate change, health, green growth, marine litter, equality and justice, but there is still a long way to go. Public finance and private investors are needed to spearhead climate action on a global scale.
Investors seeking impact could make a real difference for environmental and social issues by starting with waste management in the areas most lacking.
Maybe when we see more investors valuing people and planet, and realising the opportunities presented in resources and waste, my emotions will settle into cautious optimism, which after all is where we all want to be.