Building a fairer future: the intersection of climate action and housing justice

Why housing justice matters in the climate discourse, what COP28 had to say about it, and how to ensure it moves up the agenda for COP29.

Nora Nisi's picture
Insight by 
Nora Nisi
Researcher in IIED’s Climate Change research group
03 June 2024
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Close-packed housing with metal roofs. A bay and palm trees in the background.

The latest summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) – commonly known as COP28 – saw member governments negotiate and assess measures to tackle the climate emergency. This insight reflects on why housing justice is a crucial element in tackling the climate crisis and must remain front of mind for negotiators and decision-makers.

Focusing on cities makes sense, sidelining housing does not

You would expect a strong city agenda to have emerged at COP28. Cities are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, while urban populations are highly vulnerable to climate change-related impacts. Acknowledging the links between climate change and urbanisation is critical to address the climate crisis effectively. 

Climate justice recognises that climate change is a social justice issue, and its negative impacts are not equitably distributed. Despite the global North’s historic responsibility for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, it is the global South (which has contributed least to these emissions) that disproportionately suffers its effects.

Within countries, the impacts of climate change are also not equitably distributed, with society’s poorest being disproportionately affected. This includes the more than 2.8 billion people living in inadequate housing and 1.1 billion living in informal settlements. 

Overlooking or sidelining issues of housing justice in the climate-urban discussion would ignore climate change’s intersection with issues of equity and distribution, and hinder our ability to mitigate and adapt in a way that is sustainable and just.

Inadequate housing and climate vulnerability 

Informal settlements are characterised by their location in hazard-prone areas, poor construction and infrastructure, lack of public services, high population density and poverty. Inadequate housing does not meet the basic standards of safety, security and habitability – meaning dwellings are often unsafe, damp and overcrowded. 

Substandard ventilation and the poor structural integrity of these homes drastically increases residents’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Due to housing poverty, these households are also limited in their ability to improve their living standards.  

It is well understood that disaster- and climate-resilient housing can protect people’s lives and livelihoods. However, there is a lack of focus on housing within adaptation actions. If we are going to take adapting to climate change seriously, especially for the most vulnerable communities, then housing justice issues should not merely be part of the climate discourse they should be at the forefront of it.

Perhaps adequate housing is overlooked because many other rights rely on it. Rights to safe water, sanitation, electricity, waste removal and drainage, as well as access to public, private and emergency services, and enfranchisement, are all example of rights that are provided through housing structures or home addresses.

Was COP28 really an ‘urban COP’?

Assertions have been made that COP28 was an urban COP. While this assertion does carry a lot of merit there is still a long way to go before celebrations can begin.  

On the periphery of the formal negotiations, urban-related ‘pavilions’ and events were abundant alongside unprecedented participation from city mayors and senior local government officials. 

The second Ministerial Meeting on Urbanisation and Climate Change saw 40 ministers announce new initiatives and partnerships to advance climate action and a transition to net zero in cities. Additionally, the inaugural Local Climate Action Summit gathered local leaders and emphasised the critical role of cities in climate action.

The summit resulted in the launch of the Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships for Climate Action (CHAMP), which saw 63 (later increased to 72) national governments sign up to enhance cooperation with sub-national governments. The Local Governments and Municipal Authorities Constituency (LGMA) commended these actions in an official statement (PDF)

However, it is also important to consider the official text that emerged from official negotiations. 

While issues around ‘urban’ and ‘informal settlements’ were prevalent in the text debate room, the final first global stocktake text falls short of mentioning ‘cities’, ‘urban’, ‘informal settlements’, ‘shelter’ or ‘housing’ – nor are any of these mentioned in the nine-page Summary of Global Climate Action agreed at COP28.

However, as the LGMA also points out, the words ‘multilevel’ and ‘local’ action were included in this, as well as a mention of cities in reference to important non-Party stakeholders. Getting specific terminology into final COP text takes a long time, so seeing a semblance of this terminology can be a step in the right direction. 

Looking ahead 

As we move ahead to COP29 in Azerbaijan and discussions continue around the pivotal role cities can play in both mitigation and adaptation to climate change, it is essential that housing issues are not overlooked.

Tackling the global housing crisis alongside the climate crisis means ensuring that homes for the most vulnerable are affordable, non-discriminatory, safe, climate- and disaster-resilient and low carbon. It also means ensuring they are sustainably built, strategically located away from risk-prone areas, and in proximity to livelihood opportunities, amenities and essential services.

To get this done, there are some key priorities to consider: 

  • Integrate housing into the adaptation agenda: designing and retrofitting homes to withstand extreme weather events and other climate-related challenges is crucial for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of residents. In addition, energy-efficient, resilient homes can reduce embodied carbon (PDF) alongside the energy cost burden for low-income households, making housing more affordable.
  • Ensure adaptation measures are affordable and accessible to those living in inadequate housing: many climate adaptation initiatives may not consider the economic realities of low-income communities. As a result, vulnerable populations may be left behind in the transition to more sustainable and resilient housing. Housing solutions should also mitigate gentrification (including green gentrification), ensuring that climate-resilient development does not come at the cost of displacing poorer residents.
  • Explicitly integrate housing and climate policy: many governments have separate departments responsible for these areas. In fact, dominant housing policies and practices can lock governments into high-carbon urban development pathways. Breaking these siloes and integrating these policies can be challenging, but failing to do so can lead to a lack of coordination and missed opportunities for synergistic solutions. Merging these policies is also more likely to ensure a rights-based approach to urban development in the context of climate action.
  • Utilise bottom-up participatory processes: housing should be tailored to the specific needs and priorities of existing local communities. Because these are often shaped by specific geographic, cultural and socio-economic contexts, bottom-up approaches avoid ‘one-size-fits-all’ housing solutions that may be ineffective, unsustainable or inappropriate. Importantly, existing social movements are already collectively advancing housing rights, and governance structures should recognise and support such efforts. 

Top billing for COP29?

The strong connection between housing justice and climate justice lies in their shared emphasis on equity, sustainability and community wellbeing. Advancing the right to adequate housing is a key pathway to make urban development more environmentally and socially just. 

We now know that climate change is an issue of justice, and there is no climate justice without housing justice, so let’s make sure that housing is where it belongs at COP29 – on the front line. 

About the author

Nora Nisi is a researcher in IIED’s Climate Change research group.

Nora Nisi's picture