Published On: September 19, 2021

Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at the University of Reading, and Ally Lewis, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of York, examine the concept of ‘environmental justice’ and how we can achieve greater equality through certain ‘green’ measures.

In our interconnected world, multiple risks threaten human wellbeing and prosperity. Many are mediated through the environment such as air pollution, food insecurity and biosecurity. These risks interact with one another and resilience is determined by our socio-economic systems, such as technology, policy and legal systems.

It is generally recognised that the impacts of environmental risks are not evenly distributed amongst the population. For instance, schoolchildren in more deprived areas of inner cities can be exposed to higher levels of air pollution whilst private schools with extensive grounds in leafy suburbs are less affected. The concept of ‘environmental justice’ is rapidly achieving a higher profile with new quantification and reporting approaches. [1],[2]

The challenges

Some models to reduce risks involve mitigation of threats at source with multiple actors, including government, the private sector and citizens, pulling in the same direction with the broad goal to protect everyone equally. However, this model of closely aligned, collective action with the implicit goal of environmental justice is not the only possible response to environmental risk.

Some alternatives can deliver distinctly unequal outcomes. Rather than protecting everyone equally, new technologies and access to resource increasingly support ‘private adaptation’ whereby risks are reduced for individuals, their families and businesses but without regard to, or even hampering of, resilience for others. For example, we see this with the effects of climate change where richer individuals are able to cool their houses, protect them against flooding and preferentially secure water resources during drought events. [3],[4]

Responses to other threats such as air pollution are showing a similar trend. Historically, approaches have centred on top-down regulation to reduce pollutant emissions. Whilst not always completely effective, this was generally equitable since the atmosphere is a public domain and benefits tend to accrue to everyone no matter who has paid. For example, regulation to fit cars with expensive catalytic convertors provides social transfer of benefits (or at least reduced harm) from people that can afford to buy new cars to those whose houses or schools they drive past. Now, however, because of widespread reporting of the harms of pollution, new commercial markets have developed to meet growing demand for indoor air purification. This offers a separate and personalised route to improve air quality: those with buying power can now clean up air in their own home, vehicle, school or workplace with no transferable benefits to others.

A problem with private adaptation is that it can reduce the incentive for wealthy people (who also have more clout in the political system) to take actions that bring widespread benefits. If one can guarantee personal access to sufficient clean air, water and food even in the face of perturbations elsewhere then these harms are less salient to the individual and hence one may be less likely campaign to mitigate them.[5]

For air pollution, private adaption can weaken individual engagement and support for national-level action on emissions control.  This trend is apparent in rapidly growing economies like China and also in the design of luxury ‘health-centric homes’ in countries like the USA.[6] The global air-purifier market is currently valued at around US$10 billion per annum and is predicted to grow by 10% a year for the next decade at least. Deployment at scale will lead to higher urban temperatures and energy demand, thus creating tensions between private adaptation strategies and those set at a national level.

Achieving equality

The key message here is that interventions to address environmental risks must be assessed with a lens on distributional impacts, especially in light of increasing wealth inequality which will likely drive further divergence between national goals and the outcomes from private action.

In a UKRI-funded project called SysRisk[7], we are using a participatory approach with diverse experts to identify  interventions to environment-mediated risks. A key aspect is assessing distributional impacts of these interventions, their multifunctionality (i.e. reducing multiple types of risk), as well as complementarity and ordering of interventions. An example for net zero is grid-energy decarbonisation versus transport. Both account for roughly equal amounts of the carbon budget nationally but decarbonisation of road transport reduces inequalities in health outcomes due to air pollution more than closing the remaining UK gas-fired power stations.

In our rapidly changing world, the frequency and impact of complex environment-mediated risks are increasing. Foresight approaches are essential to inform resilience strategies that put ethical considerations around environmental justice at their heart. ‘Levelling up’ is a commonly used mantra for redistribution of economic growth, yet we should not forget how another equally important element is the equitable reduction of environmental risks.


[1] Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe. EEA Report No 22/2018.

[2] IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. Fairness and Opportunity – Digital Report  

[3] Simpson, N.P., Shearing, C.D. & Dupont, B. (2019). Climate gating: A case study of emerging responses to Anthropocene Risks. Climate Risk Management, 26, 100196.

[4] Simpson, N.P., Shearing, C.D. & Dupont, B. (2020). Gated Adaptation during the Cape Town Drought: Mentalities, Transitions and Pathways to Partial Nodes of Water Security. Society & Natural Resources, 33, 1041-1049.

[5] Huang, J. & Yang, Z.J. (2018). Risk, affect, and policy support: public perception of air pollution in China. Asian Journal of Communication, 28, 281-297.


[7] Systemic environmental risk analysis for threats to UK recovery from COVID-19

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