The day after the end of COP21 and the adoption of the Paris Agreement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi heralded the victory of climate justice. He said on his Twitter account: “Outcome of #ParisAgreement has no winners or losers. Climate justice has won and we are all working towards a greener future”. The concept of climate justice is stated for the first time in the preamble of a universal agreement. [1] After the agreement’s signature by 175 parties, we should decode this expression by taking as a starting point India’s proposal for climate justice as described in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). Let us examine how this term, that covers different realities in the world, has finally emerged as a unifying ethical principle — or narrative — for both developed and developing countries.

From a South narrative to a unifying notion for climate talks

The interpretations of justice are numerous and have had great influence in the change in approach to the issue of climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to find a response to the global warming challenge has focused on the principles of “equity”, “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “action based on respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC). Between 1992 and 2014, the international community failed to agree on specific ways to translate the principles into concrete measures. Since 1992, various analyses have been made in the context of international climate negotiations to develop just and equitable mitigation targets between the states or to allocate rights on emissions. The debate on “burden sharing” failed due to different visions on equity. In fact, there are different ways to approach the issue: a philosopher might bring up Aristotle’s teaching on justice and equity; or an economist would talk about maximising utility and efficiency. Viewpoints would vary among people under different forms of government. [2] A quick glance to the different national positions on equitable solutions for climate change challenges permits us to be aware of their difficult conciliation: when Bolivia focuses on compensations to restore equality of opportunity for development, Brazil promotes the polluter-pays principle for only the developed countries, the US will invoke the principle of national sovereignty in terms of emission reduction commitments, France on a long-term convergence of emission rights, and India on allocation according to population size. [3]

The Indian proposition to achieve a universal agreement as highlighted in its NDC is to “establish an effective, cooperative and equitable global architecture based on climate justice and the principle of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities under the UNFCCC” [4]. The idea behind these principles is that people around the world which are affected the most by climate change are those who have contributed the least to the genesis of the threat. Therefore, with regards to restorative justice, the priority is to cover the basic needs of every human being threatened by climate change and provide assistance for adaptation (in a financial and technological way). The rhetoric on climate justice, proposes mitigation but also adaptation measures.  It changes the focal point from emission allocation rights, to a broader question: how to avoid that actions against climate change keep millions of people in poverty? This problem is shared by many developing countries. The Indian response includes “adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology transfer, capacity building and transparency of action and support” in a global approach. For example, clean energy technologies must be transferred free of intellectual property rights costs [5]. One message of climate justice is that it’s possible to take action for the climate while pursuing sustainable development, protecting people and treating them equitably thanks to and efficient North-South co-operation. Moreover, a fair response to climate change in India’s NDC is also domestic commitments like investments made by the government in climate actions, on clean technologies and capacity building.

These principles has been traduced on the agreement stating for instance: “developed countries should take the lead providing finance as part of a shared effort by all parties (…) taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties” or “Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation (…).” [6] The historical responsibilities issue is expressed here in term of capacity to act. It reflects the influence gained by the South such as the ALBA group of countries [7] and India’s approach. India played a decisive role in the definition of a common position of the countries of the G77 group + China to claim additional funding, the creation of an independent institutional mechanism for financing and to push the integration of the mechanism of “loss and damage”. [8] The broader integration of the South narrative had been also permitted by the INDCs mechanism introduced to prepare the COP21. In fact if we examine the INDCs, we can observe that the developing contribution are more focused on adaptation measures that the developed ones [9].

The term “climate justice” includes inter and intra generational equity, CBDR-RC as well as adaptation issues, technology transfers, capacity building and financial support. This broader vision is unifying for all parties from North to South. [10] This concept is also taken up by governments, experts and civil society leading to different outputs like the Bali convention (2002), the Mary Robinson Foundation actions or the Oslo principles on the obligations of States facing climate change brought in March 2015 by a US lawyer group.

From the political field to a concept based on values

The concept of climate justice links climate change to an injustice against human rights. It examines the environmental challenges to socio-ecological and economic systems that undermine the realisation of rights of people with asymmetrical impacts on the poor and vulnerable. Beyond the impact on human development, climate change threatens the right to access adequate food, to health, to housing, to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, etc. And from a spatial perspective, it places a disproportionate burden on developing countries and the distribution of impacts is likely to lean towards regions with the least capacity to adapt.

The Indian climate justice approach is linked to development issues faced by the country. As it is mentioned in the Indian NDC “when we speak only of climate change, there is a perception of our desire to secure the comfort of our lifestyle. When we speak of climate justice, we demonstrate our sensitivity and resolve to secure the future of the poor from the perils of natural disaster”. This approach is consistent with priorities of many countries from LDCs to the developing ones. All countries have vulnerable citizens and ecosystems to protect from the impact of climate change and all countries want to develop and prosper and seize opportunities for job creation and growth. [11] Regarding the Paris agreement, the 11th paragraph of the preamble re-affirms that climate change is a common concern of humankind and mentions rights composing climate justice like human rights, rights of indigenous people or persons in vulnerable situations and right to development […]. [12]

This shift from the politics field (or scientific vocabulary) to human values, one allows the rhetoric of climate justice a universal scope. By avoiding cleaving the debate focused on equity, we leave North-South divisions to focus on common ethical questions. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet, to French President François Hollande’s opening address at COP 21 [13] and Chinese president Xi Jinping‘s opening discourse, they all invoked climate justice to end in a global equitable agreement.

Climate justice narrative

The “human-centred” climate justice narrative permitted people to connect to a global long-term problem, in a personal way. It pushed decision makers to elevate climate actions to the top of the political agenda, mobilising demand in countries for urgent action on climate change. Considering justice when speaking about climate change translate a complex IPPC scientific report into human stories about jobs, hunger, food, water, health, gender and human right and helped move to actions. [14] This move toward concrete measures also corresponds at the “spirit” of the COP 21 based on a bottom-up process through the INDCs mechanism and civil society participation.

But, we can also balance the victory of climate justice in the Paris agreement. We saw that many of the principles are traduced in the text but the expression itself is only “important for some” and cited in the preamble of the agreement, and not on its articles. Despite a marginal place in the text, this polysemous expression permitted oriented debate on equity and CBDR-RC on a constructive way.


[1] UNFCC Paris agreement: Noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice” when taking action to address climate change.

[2] Edward Cameron, Tara Shine, and Wendi Bevins, Climate justice: Equity and justice informing a new climate agreement. WRI and Mary Robinson Foundation.

[3] Olivier Godard, La justice climatique mondiale, Paris, La Découverte, Repères, 2015.

[4] India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution: Working towards climate justice.

[5] India’s INDC: To create a mechanism “which will turn technology and innovation into an effective instrument for global public good, not just private returns (or commercial opportunity).

[6] Article 9: UNFCC Paris agreement (

[7] Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America: The introduction of the concept of climate justice has also been hardly negotiated especially by the “mother earth” partisans like Bolivia and the ALBA group of countries.

[8] Mathy Sandrine, Des négociations internationales aux politiques nationales : le positionnement ambivalent de l’Inde sur le changement climatique, Mondes en développement, 2015.

[9] V. Mathur, A. Mohan, From response to resilience: adaptation in a global climate agreement. ORF Occasional Paper 76, 2015.

[10] Edward Cameron, Tara Shine, and Wendi Bevins, Climate justice: Equity and justice informing a new climate agreement. WRI and Mary Robinson Foundation.

[11] Edward Cameron, Tara Shine, and Wendi Bevins, Climate justice: Equity and justice informing a new climate agreement. WRI and Mary Robinson Foundation.

[12] Agnes Michelichelot, La justice climatique et l’Accord de Paris sur le climat, Revue juridique de l’environnement 2016.

[13] Elysé  C’est au nom de la justice climatique que je m’exprime aujourd’hui devant vous. C’est au nom de la justice climatique que nous devons agir.

[14] Edward Cameron, Tara Shine, and Wendi Bevins, Climate justice: Equity and justice informing a new climate agreement. WRI and Mary Robinson Fondation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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