Just Transition(s) and Transformative Change
Dunja Krause (Research Officer) and Joachim Roth (Research Intern), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)
Tackling the imminent impacts of climate change will take a profound transformation that is able not only to accelerate decarbonization but also to overcome entrenched inequalities that leave people who least contributed to climate change at the greatest risk from its impacts. Linking the concepts of Just Transition and transformative change could present a progressive way forward.
Despite its growing uptake, the Just Transition is often narrowly conceived as a concept to protect workers who are facing unemployment due to climate policy and shifts to sustainable production systems, in particular as a result of energy transitions. After all, it was the trade union movement that popularized the approach and made climate change a workers’ issue. If we think about the scale and urgency of climate change and the rapid action that is needed to limit global warming to a tolerable level, it becomes clear that more profound change is needed. Fostering a rapid transition towards low-carbon development will have far-reaching impacts on all of society, and in the process will affect a much broader public than simply energy and industry workers.
Changing production and consumption systems and shifting to renewable energy will, of course, have direct impacts on workers and we do need social protection for those who may lose their jobs. Beyond the energy sector and other traditionally “brown” industries, changes must also be accelerated in urban development, mobility and overall consumption patterns. We mostly think of these changes in terms of technological innovation, but the ramifications are much wider, requiring innovations in policy and institutional domains as well. For example, education and vocational training systems must be adjusted to the needs of a low-carbon economy and industrial policy needs to shift to promote low-carbon innovations while adapting existing industries and protecting jobs. Transitioning to low-carbon development thus relies on making the right choices in a variety of different sectors.
Adding a fairness dimension to such transitions is paramount given that the most marginalized and vulnerable people face the biggest impacts of climate change and are often the least likely to benefit from the opportunities the transition brings about. To make sure that climate justice is understood broadly, it should be discussed in terms of processes, distribution and recognition. But the meaning of justice itself is complex and influenced by multiple actors and norms. What one group might envision as just will be characterized as unjust by another and conceptions of justice that unilaterally promote their vision can end up entrenching unequal and exclusionary patterns.
A Just Transition must work for unionized coal miners as well as for informal workers or service providers who are affected by changing economies and climate change. A broad approach to climate justice builds on solidarity, participation and social inclusion and relies on comprehensive social policies and strong public institutions. It depends on collective bargaining processes and a combination of enabling policies and local ownership. In Kumaon, India, for example, forest conservation outcomes improved when villagers were attributed forest guardian roles and responsibilities which represented a shift from government control to collaboration and increased political recognition of local communities. Similarly, different social groups’ actions on climate change might evolve as they are given a stake in how the Just Transition unfolds.
In this context, it is important to question whose ideas and values are in the driving seat and how this influences transition pathways. In many countries, neoliberal thinking and policies persist and constrain the role of public interventions and spending that aim to regulate markets in order to foster equity and sustainability. And while it is true that energy transition is starting to make economic sense and is now driven to a large extent by the private sector, the market will not solve our problems for us. Business interests are still more often than not in conflict with both climate action imperatives and workers’ rights. Unequal bargaining power has led to a global economic system that works to the advantage of the few and the detriment of the many. If we want climate justice, we need to do economics differently and change our perspective to prioritize social and environmental goals over profit maximization and growth imperatives.
While such change remains a huge challenge, an increasing number of innovations and initiatives that depart from the predominant market-liberal approach are being adopted around the world. These include community-based initiatives and social movements that strive for localized low-carbon development and are based on normative values of sustainability and social justice, such as Transition Towns or renewable energy cooperatives. Many of these alternative initiatives adopt an integrated approach to development that combines environmental considerations with principles of cooperation, solidarity and democratic self-management.
As the call for a Just Transition grows louder, coherent and progressive public policies can provide an enabling environment for sustainable and equitable low-carbon development initiatives at different levels of governance. Costa Rica is an example of inclusive sustainable development that has been promoted at national level and led to public policies that support cooperatives, the Solidarista labour movement, and communal development associations. The country was an early promoter of sustainability and introduced a Payment for Ecosystem Services Scheme that has effectively led to a regeneration of its forest cover from 17 percent in 1983 to 52 percent in 2011. In 2015, 99 percent of electricity demand in Costa Rica was met through renewable energies. With a focus on promoting productive employment and universal social policies alongside environmental protection and ecotourism, the country has achieved high levels of human development while maintaining comparatively low greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of Portland, Oregon, the city actively managed its transition following massive de-industrialization and promoted a different economic model combining economic, social and environmental goals by favouring local business, permaculture and green rooftops, resulting in local job creation and improved energy efficiency.
In order to be transformative, public policies and local initiatives must tackle the root causes of poverty, inequalities and environmental degradation, and be forged through inclusive political processes and equitable forms of partnership. Transformative policies must address the growing economic and political power of elites, and patterns of stratification related to class, gender, ethnicity, religion or location that can lock people into disadvantage and constrain their choices and agency. Understood this way, transformative change focuses on the processes needed to overcome unsustainable and inequitable practices and calls for a fundamental change to make markets work for the environment and society rather than the other way around. Using a transformative change lens to assess different Just Transition approaches may help in distinguishing progressive approaches that support social and ecological emancipation from those that merely aim to protect a specific sector or group of people.
Dunja Krause (@dunjamarie) is a Research Officer at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), where she leads the work on social dimensions of climate change and coordinates the institute’s work on Just Transition. This piece was co-authored with Joachim Roth who is a Research Intern at UNRISD where he supports the work of the Just Transition Research Collaborative.
This think piece is part of the Just Transition(s) Online Forum. Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the JTRC or its partner organizations.