Inclusion is one of four cross-cutting themes at COP28. Anika Heckwolf and Eléonore Soubeyran reflect on what inclusive climate action really means – for science, decision-making, finance and policy implementation.

Back in August, the UAE COP Presidency and UN Climate Change promised that COP28 would be the most inclusive of the annual UN climate summits to date. A focus on inclusion was already evident during the Bonn Intersessional in June, which saw a number of events on the role of Indigenous Peoples, young people and women in climate action. The UAE urged countries to include these groups in negotiation teams, observer delegations and decision-making, policy and action before and during COP28 and made inclusion one of the four cross-cutting themes of this year’s summit. Whether this COP will have been as inclusive as promised remains to be seen – especially considering the host’s poor human rights record and zero tolerance towards government criticism.

Regardless, this focus offers an opportunity to delve into what inclusion in climate action truly means, why it matters and what form it should take, in the UN fora and beyond.

Why inclusion matters for climate action

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell has said “[t]he fight for climate action is also a fight for a more just and equal society”. Inclusive climate action acknowledges that climate change, and the responses to it, are often unfair, with impacts varying among different groups. Meaningful engagement with a wide range of stakeholders is imperative to designing global climate action that is effective, fair and sustainable and that addresses, rather than perpetuates, existing inequalities.

Inclusive climate action is a term increasingly used in development circles. It is closely related to and builds on similar concepts such as just transition, inclusive growth and climate justice.

We suggest that for truly inclusive climate action, there is a need to consider inclusion across three dimensions: science, decision-making, and finance and policy implementation.

Climate science

We know today that a woman, Eunice Newton Foote, first discovered the greenhouse effect in 1856 – although the discovery is generally credited to John Tyndall. Over 150 years later, climate science has a reputation for lacking gender diversity – and a strong bias towards researchers located in the Global North. Reuters’ 2021 Hot List of the world’s 1,000 most influential climate scientists featured only 122 women, with minimal representation from the Global South, including only five researchers based in Africa, the continent most vulnerable to climate change.

This striking imbalance raises urgent questions about the power dynamics and inequalities in academia. It also matters for our understanding of climate change: those who do the research determine which questions get answered. As one commentator points out: “Biases in authorship mean that the existing bank of knowledge around climate change is skewed towards the interests of male authors from the global north, creating blind spots around the needs of women and communities in the global south.” Indeed, the Working Group II 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that the lack of adaptation data and research on Africa threatens the continent’s adaptive capacity as research is shaped by and for a Global North audience, “rather than providing actionable insights on priority issues for [Africans]”.

Recently, the IPCC adopted a Gender Policy and Implementation Plan, among the aims of which is to increase the participation of female scientists in the IPCC’s work. And tips for academics in the Global North on how to constructively collaborate with Global South researchers, along with tools like Carbon Brief’s Global South Climate Database, are expanding access to a broader range of perspectives in climate science.

However, research funding remains a major blocker to inclusivity: between 1990 and 2020, less than 4% of global climate research funding targeted Africa-related research and of that, most funding did not go to local institutions. Rebalancing research funding will be essential for a more inclusive climate science that addresses the problems of those most in need of solutions.


Those on the frontline of the climate crisis are frequently absent or marginalised from decision-making, yet their active participation is essential at all levels, from the local to the international. The UN COP summits, the key fora for climate decision-making, have historically lacked inclusivity, with under-representation of low-income countries and thus the voices of those most affected by climate change. While delegation size is not the only factor determining negotiation power, smaller delegations have limited ability to take part in negotiations on all agenda items and hence influence decisions in their favour.

Encouragingly, many poorer countries have recently increased the sizes of their delegations, with COP27 witnessing record-sized registered delegations from small-island developing states and the least developed countries. And the approval of the Loss and Damage Fund at COP28 has been hailed as a major success for developing countries, reflecting their growing influence at COP summits. Still, the fact that combined delegates from the 10 most climate-impacted countries were outnumbered by fossil fuel lobbyists at COP27 (who attended COP28 in even higher numbers) highlights that more work needs to be done to ensure that all countries can make their voices heard.

Marginalised groups and communities also struggle to be heard at the COPs. For example:

Recent COP summits have become more diverse, and have shown growing awareness of, for instance, the linkages between climate change and gender, disability and Indigenous Peoples. But vulnerable people and communities continue to face many barriers to travelling to, attending and being heard and there is a persisting lack of space for activism and protests. More work is needed from the UNFCCC, host governments and all parties to ensure the COP summits are truly inclusive.

Finance and policy implementation

Applying principles of inclusion is crucial for shaping and implementing climate policies, strategies and financing to effectively translate climate commitments into just and inclusive action. The technical dialogue of the first Global Stocktake outlined the need for “whole-of-society approaches and integrated, inclusive policymaking” for mutually supportive action that addresses climate change and promotes sustainable development. Inclusion is also a central pillar of an effective climate finance system that not only devises finance for communities but with them.

Inclusive climate finance and implementation takes different forms at different levels. Facets of best practice include:

  • Active stakeholder participation, dialogue and engagement, especially those from vulnerable and marginalised communities, being sure to integrate local and indigenous knowledge.
  • Equitable access to resources (including financial and technological) and opportunities, especially for those most affected by climate change.
  • Building communities’ capacity and empowerment with the necessary tools and knowledge to use these resources effectively and actively engage in the implementation of climate strategies.
  • Measures to assess and address the social and human rights risks of the transition, across all groups, including workers, suppliers, communities and consumers.
  • Gendersensitive approaches, considering the specific needs of women and men in climate action and ensuring equitable participation and benefits.
  • Transparent and accountable governance, with clear communication, open consultation processes and mechanisms for communities to hold decision-makers accountable.
  • Tailored financial instruments, catering to varied needs and capacities, such as grants for communities unable to bear debts and insurance products for smallholder farmers at risk from climate change, and instruments that target gender equality.

Recognition of the importance of these inclusive practices is growing but implementation is still insufficient. Climate finance is still concentrated in developed economies and China (which attracted 84% of total flows in 2021/2022), and the annual financing shortfall for adaptation alone stands at $194–366 billion. Meanwhile, countries’ just transition plans – included in only 31% of nationally determined contributions only 31% of nationally determined contributions – still focus narrowly on the impacts of climate measures on workers in high-emitting sectors, at the expense of women or those informally employed.

A more inclusive approach to climate action is needed

Despite promises of inclusivity and steps to increase the participation of diverse groups, global climate action remains characterised by a complex interplay of representation and power dynamics. The persistent underrepresentation of marginalised voices and those at the frontline of climate change, alongside the dominance of developed economies in climate finance, highlights the urgent need for a more inclusive approach at all levels, from the science to decision-making, to finance and implementation. This is more than a matter of equity: it is crucial for the effectiveness of our global response to climate change.

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