Putting People at the Heart of Climate Action: 3 Reasons Business Must Care

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO, Business Fights Poverty

We’re just over two weeks away from a critical milestone in the fight against climate change. The UK will host the COP26 climate conference, bringing together countries to enhance their commitments for the first time since they made them under the Paris Agreement in 2015. Zahid Torres-Rahman shares 3 reasons why business must put people at the heart of climate justice.

We’re just over two weeks away from a critical milestone in the fight against climate change. The UK will host the COP26 climate conference, bringing together countries to enhance their commitments for the first time since they made them under the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The focus of attention has, rightly, been on those highlighting the urgency of action – including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and those angry at the lack of it, not least Greta Thunberg. The numbers and predictions are truly terrifying, even if we take massive action now.

Amidst all the talk of record rises in global surface temperatures, and commitments to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or sooner, it can be easy to lose sight of the devastating human impact of this heartbreaking planetary story.

The truth is that climate change is affecting us all, but the most severe impacts are being felt by the most vulnerable people, who contribute least to the causes of the problem. Existing inequities – due to factors such as gender, race and income – exacerbate the risks to people’s lives and livelihoods. Inequity also affects people’s capacity and opportunity to participate in the transition to a green economy.

For that reason, together with Jane Nelson at the Harvard Kennedy School and Tara Shine at Change by Degrees, I wrote a paper early this year on “climate justice” – about how we can and must put people at the heart of climate action.

Climate justice – a framing of the climate crisis through an equity and social justice lens – is not a new concept. Advocates have been calling for a rights-based, people-centered approach for at least 20 years. What is new, is that businesses are starting to pay attention, with many actively charting out their strategies.

In our paper, we focus on the actions business can take, and set out three reasons why businesses need to apply a human-centred, climate justice lens to their work.

First, it encourages a more holistic, joined-up approach within the company that minimises the risk of unintended negative social impacts from climate actions. In addition to crucially reducing salient risks to people, this can also lower litigation and reputation risks for the company. It recognises that building social and economic resilience is a powerful way to build climate resilience, and vice versa. It incentivises working across often-siloed climate and social/human rights teams and functions, along with integrated targets and reporting, to deliver climate solutions that work for people and planet, as well as the company. In practical terms, this might translate, for example, into greater resilience of supply chains, when viewed from a combined social and environmental perspective.

Second, it provides a framework for consultation and dialogue with key stakeholders, including around potential tradeoffs. This will help build trust and reinforce companies’ social license to operate. It demonstrates a commitment to people-centred climate action that balances the economic and social priorities of employees and external stakeholders with the imperative to address climate change.

Third, it will spur commercial innovation and investment that drives social impact and climate action as well as business competitiveness. Investment and innovation in new technologies, products, services, processes and business models also has the potential to deliver solutions that build the resilience of communities as well as the business in the face of climate and other systemic shocks.

What other reasons would you add? Can you share examples and advice from your own work?


Join us for our Virtual Summit on Climate Justice, from 3 – 5 November, or at our in-person Green Zone event in Glasgow on 4 November (12.30 – 2pm) to explore the social and equity dimensions of climate change, and how business can take action to support climate justice. I invite you to join the virtual events for free with the code BFPLICOP26 and tickets for our in-person event are available on a first-come-first-serve basis via the official COP26 ticketing site (we’ll be live streaming it if you can’t make it).

You can check out the latest agenda here, but to give you a flavour, you’ll hear:

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern in discussion with Jane Nelson talking about the imperative for action, from an economic and social perspective, and what business can do in partnership with government and civil society.

The Rt Hon Amanda Milling MP, Minister for Asia, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, talking about how the UK Government, as host of this year’s climate conference, sees the challenges and priorities for action, including by the business community.

Monique Ntumngia, Founder of Green Girls Organisation, talking about her inspiring work in West Africa, empowering women to provide renewable energy to rural communities in West Africa: improving lives through access to energy, while also transforming livelihoods.

We’ll also have sessions profiling youth voices, social innovation and empowering women in the transition to Net-Zero.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to:

  • hear how businesses are driving social and environmental innovation internally, with valuable advice on how you can overcome challenges to do the same.
  • access the latest practical insights from real-world examples of businesses taking action on climate justice so that you can scale the impact of your own efforts.
  • tap into current thinking and best-practice lessons on priorities for collaborative action, and identify new connections to take forward your own partnerships.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. How we respond can also enhance or undermine the human rights of people around the world. We need to put people at the centre of our discussions and our actions so that the transition to a green economy is also a just one.

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