a factory at twilight with smoke coming out of the chimneys

How will the environmental crises impact ethnic minority groups in the UK?

By Naomi Chapman 7 October 2022 5 minute read

At NPC we’ve been running a series of roundtables with environmental and social charities and funders to understand how the environmental crises will affect different social groups and how charities should respond. This is part of NPC’s Everyone’s Environment programme launching this Autumn, in which we are working with partners to empower people from Britain’s diverse social groups to be fully part of the response to the climate and nature crises. 

This was the third roundtable in our series, held in partnership with the Race Equality Foundation in September 2022. Catch up on our previous blogs on involving older people and disabled people and on involving young people.

This is a report of what was said at our roundtable, the views and recommendations expressed are therefore those of attendees and do not necessarily represent those of NPC.

How are Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups affected by the environmental crises?

Racial disparities in environmental impacts are significant. At NPC’s recent roundtable, held in partnership with the Race Equality Foundation, our speakers shared how people from minoritised backgrounds are both disproportionately affected by climate impacts such as extreme weather, causes of climate change such as air pollution; and are disproportionately excluded from nature and green spaces.

Jabeer Butt, Chief Executive of the Race Equality Foundation, highlighted that more people in minoritised groups are diagnosed with asthma, the impact of which is exacerbated by poor air quality.  Jabeer highlighted evidence from London that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were more likely to live in places with worse air pollution. Maxwell Ayamba, Managing Director of the Sheffield Environmental Movement, highlighted how just 26% of minoritised people spend time in the countryside compared to 44% of their white counterparts.

Meanwhile, the costs of some of the policies to clean the air we breathe can also be unfairly borne. Jabeer Butt pointed out that the congestion and Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charges in London are disproportionately paid by Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, who for example make up 94% of taxi drivers in those zones. Maxwell Ayamba argued that because only 9% of students on environmental courses are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (compared to 32% across all degrees), diverse voices go on to be under-represented in professions generating solutions to the climate crisis.

Sarah Mann of the Friends, Families and Travellers charity highlighted the specific issues some minority groups face. For travellers living in caravans, high temperatures and flooding are a threat to life, with caravan sites often placed on land deemed unsuitable for housing due to flood risk or high pollution, and caravans themselves are poorly designed for extreme conditions.

The public is largely ignorant of these inequalities. Recent YouGov polling showed that 55% of people were unaware of the difference in exposure to air pollution between ethnic groups in London; and 47% mistakenly believed there were no significant differences between ethnic groups in access to green outdoor spaces.

These observations are some of the reasons why we need targeted action from the public, private, social, and environmental sectors to address the unequal impacts of the climate and nature crises.

How can the social sector address disparity in environmental impacts?

While the social sector alone cannot tackle this issue, it certainly has a key role to play:

Through sharing data with policy makers

Policy makers and practitioners need to understand the impacts of the climate crisis on Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Charities could share the data they already collect on the impact of environmental damage, or they could support research into new or under-discussed impacts.

Through empowering grassroots work

Charities could help to empower grassroots work that engages Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in climate action and the natural world. However, the roundtable discussion acknowledged that projects are always vulnerable to funding cycles so the sector needs to be creative in how initiatives can become self-sustaining or embedded within core work.

By tackling the colonial thinking that still underpins the environmental sector

Many roundtable attendees argued that environmental activity has a colonial history and continues to be influenced by this, deterring Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups from getting involved.

At the roundtable, we discussed this issue in both an international context and a UK context. An example of these dynamics internationally is British charities delivering projects overseas without consulting with local and indigenous communities, especially when the UK has previously benefitted from environmental degradation in these areas. Domestically, examples include the pervasive underfunding of work for and with minoritised communities, despite funder endowments often deriving from slavery. A starting point for moving beyond colonial roots should be acknowledging this history and power dynamic and creating avenues for minoritised communities to highlight where colonial power dynamics still influence work so practices can change.

Central to all these strands is the importance of social and environmental sectors committing to genuine diversity and inclusion. The environmental sector is the second least diverse workforce in the UK, after farming. It is not enough for charities and funders to empower grassroots action and support diverse-led groups to lead action. Roundtable attendees agreed that for real change, the workforces of the social and environmental sectors need to incorporate a diversity of voices, and those in leadership positions need to cede power to allow for new perspectives, new solutions, and a new narrative around climate in minoritised communities and beyond.

What are the barriers for the social sector?

Through the roundtable discussion, two core barriers were identified to social sector action on the climate crises:

1. Lack of infrastructure:

We need sustained investment in sector infrastructure that supports climate action led by people from minoritised communities. Great projects, however impactful, will never be sustained or lead to systemic impact without coordination from a central sector body, because siloed working means that learning from projects is not shared between organisations. Collective action requires a forum for charities to come together and have conversations, formulate plans, and deliver lasting impact.

2. Understanding and articulating relevance:

The sector needs to understand how climate impacts relate to the lives of people from different Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, in order to understand how to grow engagement from these groups in solutions to the climate and nature crises. This includes understanding personal priorities, cultural traditions, and existing views on environmental issues.

For example, Rukaiya Jeraj, Head of Programmes at Uprising, highlighted that only after articulating the relevance of its Environmental Leadership Programme to the specific interests of minoritised young people (around work, education, and family care responsibilities) did Uprising see its cohorts diversify.

We also need to remember that understanding and experiences of climate will vary, so a one size fits all engagement strategy will not be successful. Similarly, many Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups disproportionately face financial hardship. Charities must therefore be mindful of intersectionality and consider accessibility alongside relevance in motivating people to play a part in finding solutions to the climate crisis.

Moving forwards together

The social and environmental sectors need to do everything they can to empower Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, to understand the potential impacts of the climate crisis on their lives, and to take environmental action, whether at a grassroots level, through user involvement, or by joining the workforce longer term. The sector must learn from this insight and the work that is led by minoritised communities, in order to identify win-win solutions that address the climate crisis and social need.

At NPC, we are continuing to convene social and environmental organisation as part of our Everyone’s Environment programme, one strand of which will specifically focus on Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.

Sign up to the programme launch, or get in touch with Liz Gadd, Principal Consultant, or Leah Davis, Head of Policy and External Affairs, if would like to get involved in this work.


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