Just transition in the built environment

Anna Triponel

June 7, 2024
Our key takeaway: There is a significant intersection of human rights and climate change risks in the built environment—meaning man-made structures and facilities that together create an environment where people live and work. Through an examination of eight cities across the globe, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) identifies four main areas where human rights are impacted in the built environment and exacerbated by climate change: housing rights (especially access to affordable and sustainable housing), workers' rights (especially in the construction sector), community participation in decision-making, and spatial justice. The report envisions a future where governments and investors prioritise affordable clean energy, sustainable housing and equitable access to green spaces and public transportation. The report calls for inclusive governance mechanisms and proactive engagement of local communities by both government and the private sector—including for transition-related initiatives—to ensure respect for human rights in urban investment and construction. The private sector, which includes diverse actors ranging from investors to construction companies to real estate firms and beyond, has a responsibility to respect human rights in built environment activities by conducting strong human rights due diligence of their own operations, suppliers and portfolio companies; protecting construction workers’ rights and safety, especially in the context of rising heat stress; and prioritising projects that benefit marginalised communities while focusing on energy efficiency and climate resilience. 

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) published Advancing Just Transitions In The Built Environment: A Global Research Project Exploring Human Rights in the Green Transition (June 2024), summarising the results of a two-year action research project focusing on the built environment in eight cities:

  • Human rights and climate change risks intersect in four main areas: IHRB studied eight cities to understand how a just transition can be advanced in the built environment, including Lagos (Nigeria), Prague (Czechia), Lisbon (Portugal), Melbourne (Australia), Copenhagen (Denmark), Jakarta (Indonesia), Athens (Greece), and Valparaíso (Chile). The report identifies four ways in which human rights can be negatively impacted in the built environment—and how climate change intersects. First, the right to housing is being impacted by increasing privatisation of public housing and housing unaffordability driven by growing wealth and income inequalities and by stagnant wages. This is exacerbated by a population influx caused by climate-driven migration from rural areas into cities. Second, workers’ rights—especially in the construction sector—are at risk due to unsafe working conditions and exposure to environmental and toxic hazards. There are high rates of informality and a large number of migrants in the construction sector, increasing vulnerability of these workers to human rights impacts. Climate change “poses escalating risks for workers, notably through rising temperatures that significantly impact outdoor construction labour” and the report flags that there are no comprehensive just transition plans from governments or employers in the cities studied. Third, local communities are being left out of decision-making processes for new investments, construction and initiatives that will impact them, including for climate transition projects. The report found that “this exclusion can result in greenlash – pushback against green initiatives,” and that there is often a tension between the urgent need for a green transition with the time-consuming process of community consultation. Fourth, the report identifies inequalities in spatial justice—that is, fair and equitable distribution of “socially valued resources” like green space and public transport. For example, many low-income communities live in areas on the periphery of cities and in low-quality housing, placing them far from public transportation and infrastructure to access goods and services. In addition, access to green space is more limited in low-income neighborhoods, which can have impacts on mental and physical health and on climate resilience: green spaces are seen as “the main antidote” to heat stress caused by urban heat islands, which tend to be worse in lower-income neighborhoods.  
  • A vision for the future: The report paints a vision for the future of cities based on workshops with the participants from the eight cities that were part of the study. Participants envision that their cities shift towards affordable, clean energy and have sustainable living options and green shared space that is open to everyone—not just a luxury for wealthy residents. As part of this, affordable, sustainable housing is built close to major activity hubs instead of pushed to the periphery of cities, and “[e]quitable access to green areas and public transportation throughout the city increases climate resilience and keeps segregation low.” There are also “accountability and transparency mechanisms for inclusive and responsible governance” that ensure both governments and the private sector put local communities “at the heart of decision-making” on fundamental issues like climate resilience and housing. In addition, businesses—especially construction providers—“proactively engage with workers through social dialogue and collective bargaining with their trade unions, improving their wages, rights, and safety.” Companies also work to “meaningfully engage with CSOs, particularly trade unions, offering stable and high-quality employment, and invest in the social economy, meeting local needs.” 
  • Roles and responsibilities for the private sector: Investors and other private sector actors have an important role to play; the reports names real estate investors, developers, project owners, small and large architecture, planning, and design firms, construction companies, their respective contractors and subcontractors, and their business partners throughout the supply chain. They should respect human rights throughout their own operations, in their supply chains and in their investment portfolios. They are also responsible for providing or contributing to remedy when they have impacted human rights in the built environment, including for people who are relocated or evicted and for workers. Some key actions for companies to respect human rights in the built environment include: ensuring the social license to operate by consulting with local communities and end-users; performing human rights due diligence on construction companies and real estate firms, and requiring them to do the same for their own supply chains; implementing or investing in companies that implement “strong policies that protect workers’ rights, such as transparent human resources processes, safety standards, providing adequate support for all workers, regardless of gender, age, or disability, [and] programmes to reskill for refurbishing and retrofitting housing”; ensuring diversity among the boards and staff of built environment companies; and prioritising projects and investments that protect tenants, create sustainable employment opportunities for local residents and focus on energy-efficiency and affordability.

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