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The Urban Heart of a Just Transition: How Cities Plan for Social Justice in Climate Action

Cities are often framed as sustainability saviors. Alexa Waud analyzes 20 climate action plans of cities that participate in the international Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and argues that in order to minimize the impacts of decarbonization on vulnerable populations, cities must understand the historical context of racial and social justice struggles, the immediacy and impact of climate action plans, and the strong potential for action on climate change.

Series: Climate Change and Social Change

It is now a common trope to frame the city as a sustainability savior. It is both free from the slow-moving cogs of national government, the story goes, and, as a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), has plenty of room for reduction. Over the last two decades, this realization that cities can—and should—take action on climate change has led to a proliferation of municipal climate action plans and sustainability-oriented city networks. In recent years, there has been growing discussion of the implications for social justice from cities’ climate action (Bautista et al. 2017; Walsh-Russo 2016; Schrock, Bassett and Green 2015). In this paper, I take an inclusive approach to climate justice, which ensures decarbonization is not undertaken at the expense of vulnerable populations and also works to reduce existing inequalities. In analyzing how cities incorporate social justice into their climate plans, I identify three categories that outline the quality of incorporation: absent, isolated, and integrated. I then discuss the patterns—geographical, institutional, and temporal—within and across these categories.

The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance: a sample of municipal climate action plans

The Carbon-Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) is a collective of 20 international cities that have committed to at least an 80% GHG emissions reduction by 2050. Its international membership creates a sample of cities for this research that broadens the literature’s current American focus (Saha and Paterson 2008). Furthermore, its ambitious carbon-reduction targets can better account for the fact that ambitious plans require a greater reshaping of infrastructure and services, which consequently have more potential to impact vulnerable populations. However, the CNCA’s mandate extends beyond getting cities to make GHG-reduction commitments. It has also created a framework to guide cities through decarbonization. Among the framework’s 11 guiding principles is “embrace social equity in climate action” (CNCA 2015, p. 27), a call that has been taken up by some member cities but not others.

Figure 2. Map of CNCA member cities


I used discourse analysis on the 20 CNCA city climate plans to explore the quality and extent of social justice incorporation. [1] If applicable, I consulted earlier versions of each city’s climate plan to evaluate how consideration for justice changed over time. I undertook a close reading of each plan’s outline and objectives, as well as areas where justice is discussed. I was drawn to these areas by the presence of social justice “keywords,” a list [2] which I derived from the CNCA guiding principles, as well as the exemplary language in Portland’s Climate Action Through Equity report (Williams-Rajee and Evans 2016). I analyzed each climate plan by searching for keywords, and, following Greg Schrock, Ellen Bassett and Jamaal Green (2015), I looked to the object of an equity-focused sentence, whether it is a problem, goal, or action (pp. 286–287). This distinction became crucial in differentiating between isolated and integrated plans: the former recognized (in)justice as a problem, but in the latter social justice was a driving force. For example, the San Francisco Climate Action Strategy recognizes unequal vulnerability to heat waves: “The demographic characteristics that make certain groups most vulnerable to heat-related illness in San Francisco include age, race, income, [and] social isolation…” (SFDE 2013, p. 2); whereas in the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan, all five of the implementation goals have an equity component (MCC 2013, p. 12). The findings from the discourse analysis informed the categorization of cities’ approach to addressing climate justice (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Absent, isolated and integrated cities

Absent, isolated and integrated plans

In many cases, there was no mention of justice throughout the entire climate plan. These plans fall into the category I call absent. In general, absent plans emphasize GHG emissions reductions in relation to infrastructural and technological change. Although these cities are similar in their exclusion of justice, they differ in their articulated motivation. For example, Adelaide’s climate action plan (ACC & GSA 2016) is investment focused. From the outset of their plan, Adelaide approaches climate action with economic opportunism, “Capitalizing on our global reputation will help to attract and secure national and overseas investment in local clean technology businesses…” (ibid., p. 7). Even the concept of “community engagement,” which other cities use to advance their social justice agendas, has an entrepreneurial focus in Adelaide and is equated to private-public partnerships. Stockholm (Lönngren et al. 2010), on the other hand, appeals to the scientifically minded reader, outlining the tons of CO2 each sector will save. It is difficult for the average citizen to translate numerical representation of the atmosphere into tangible changes in the city.

Figure 4. Poster promoting a carbon-neutral Adelaide


Cities in the isolated category have plans where the social justice considerations are additional, tacked onto a few climate actions. When (in)justice was the object of a sentence, it was most often identified as a problem, something that exists or is increasing. Take, for example, Toronto’s explanation of energy poverty in its Power to Live Green report: “… Even with relatively low energy prices, there are ‘energy equity’ issues that affect many Torontonians” (City of Toronto 2009, p. 14). Finally, isolated plans conceive of climate action narrowly. This is once again exemplified by Toronto’s Strategic Actions report (City of Toronto 2013), which lists “Equity, Access, and Diversity” as a social development goal, but fails to connect this goal to environmental initiatives, leaving the plan’s social justice possibilities unleveraged.

Justice is constitutive to plans in the integrated category. These plans outline the importance of social justice in their introduction as a guiding principle in relation to which actions are assessed. For example, “equity and diversity” is named as one of four central challenges in Washington, DC, against which each proposed solution in Sustainability DC (District of Columbia 2011) is assessed. In the “Nature” solutions section, for instance, the challenge is met by distributing green spaces evenly throughout the District, and cleaning waterways bordering two disadvantaged neighborhoods (ibid., p. 74). In Greenovate Boston (Walsh 2014), social equity is a cross-cutting theme. Greenovate links climate action and social justice both globally and locally by noting that developing countries are most vulnerable to climate change, and Boston’s vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected by its impacts (ibid., p. 16). Furthermore, in integrated plans climate impacts and social justice are not addressed individually, but as deeply connected, which is articulated in OneNYC: “We recognize that equity and environmental conditions are inexorably linked” (City of New York 2015, p. 164).

Geographical, institutional, and temporal patterns

The most definitive pattern that arose was geographical. None of the European cities include equity concerns in their climate plans, and all of the American cities have at least some mention of justice, with six of nine being integrated. Not coincidentally, integrated plans are most common in the United States, where environmental justice (EJ) has a deep history. The EJ movement was born in racially and economically segregated American cities where the burdens of environmental degradation were, and continue to be, concentrated in low-income, black neighborhoods (Bullard 1994; Cole and Foster 2000). In Minneapolis, this history translated to the formation of an EJ Working Group to help in the production of its climate plan (MCC 2013). In Portland, the history of racial injustice is presented in relation to that of climate policy: “Communities of color and low-income populations in Portland have been under-served by programs and investments and under-represented in decision making on climate policy” (2016). In contrast, the European cities do not have the same history of racial segregation, and they have a greater number of existing social services. A growing and marginalized non-white immigrant population, however, suggests that European cities should take these populations into consideration when shaping future climate change plans and policies.

Although the American–European divide was stark, the geographic pattern was not as clear in Australia. Both Adelaide and Melbourne did not consider justice in their climate plans. [3] However, Sydney, demographically similar to Melbourne (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013), has a deeply integrated plan. It is one of only two CNCA cities, the other being Portland (CoP & MC 2015, p. 44), to acknowledge Indigenous people. In fact, Sustainable Sydney opens with an “Access and Equity Statement” and a statement to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (City of Sydney 2014, p. 2).

The second pattern is institutional; the municipal government structure (i.e. mayor–council or council–manager) matters. Climate plans in cities that have mayor–council governments, like New York City, have centralized climate plans often housed within the mayor’s office. Many of these cities have integrated agendas that incorporate otherwise siloed municipal departments. However, coherence was the case even when the city belonged to the absent category, as in Adelaide, where the economic-focused plan was spearheaded by the mayor. Cities with manager–council arrangements had more fragmented plans. In Toronto, environmental policy is spread across a collection of environment-related documents. [4] Multiple city divisions are working to produce environmental policy without a coordinating power, which means environmental goals are not in conversation with social justice goals. This distinction is exemplified in describing to whom each plan belongs: PlaNYC (City of New York 2011) is “Bloomberg’s” and OneNYC is “de Blasio’s,” whereas Change is in the Air (TEO & TEEO 2007), Power to Live Green and TransformTO (City of Toronto 2017) are all “Toronto’s” documents. What seems like a slight difference is actually telling; whether or not the mayor’s office championed the climate plan influences the plan’s content and organization, including the incorporation of justice.

Figure 6. Cover illustration of New York City’s OneNYC plan


The final pattern that emerged was temporal. In looking at each city’s archives it became clear that over time, cities were incorporating principles of justice into the plans. This observation is consistent with Schrock, Basset, and Green’s finding that updated climate plans have higher equity ratings (2015, p. 287). They explain, “The factor that appears to be most clearly associated with an equity orientation is whether the plan was the city’s first effort or not” (ibid.). They suggest that “deepening of local sustainability capacity,” relating to interest groups’ ability to shape the agenda, could account for this trend (ibid.). However, interest groups could shape a city in many ways, and the authors do not explain why the interest group involvement results in the incorporation of equity. The transition from isolated to integrated is happening in both New York City and Toronto for difference reasons. New York City’s jump between categories clearly aligns with a change in mayoral leadership. Although this constitutes an incorporation of the principles of justice over time, in New York City this trend could easily be reversed with the election of a new mayor. In Toronto, however, with the release of TransformTO, the shift from isolated to integrated is harder to trace. Language in the TransformTO report suggests that network effects contributed to the shift, which could be explored in future research.

Moving towards climate justice for all

I chose to focus on cities and justice not for each element’s independent importance, but rather for their synergy. The city in particular is an interesting site for exploring the interaction between decarbonization and justice; it is perhaps the heart of a just transition. The historical context of racial and socioeconomic injustice in cities, the immediacy and impact of city policies, and the strong potential for climate action within cities make case studies on cities striving for carbon neutrality ideal for exploring this interaction. The absent, isolated, and integrated categorization of city climate plans is useful because it identifies a standard for which cities can strive. The geographical, institutional, and temporal patterns draw attention to the factors that promote the incorporation of social justice considerations in cities’ climate action plans. In moving forward, cities striving for carbon neutrality should also strive for climate plans with integrated social justice agendas and pay attention to their historical and institutional contexts in order to craft plans with a more durable incorporation of social justice.


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To cite this article:

Alexa Waud, “The Urban Heart of a Just Transition: How Cities Plan for Social Justice in Climate Action”, Metropolitics, 3 April 2018. URL :

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