Squaring urgency and equity in the Just Transition debate

Peter Newell, University of Sussex

Is it possible to accelerate transitions in inclusive ways? Can rapidity be squared with attending to questions of equity and social justice? The question here then is less whether transitions can be just, but can rapid transitions also be Just Transitions?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The need to increase the speed and depth of transitions to sustainability is every day more apparent. From the IPCC special report on 1.5˚C to concerns about mass biodiversity loss and the passing of planetary boundaries, the signs that the current system is not sustainable are clear for all to see.

Yet there is debate about whether by emphasizing urgency and the need for radical and rapid interventions we make it more likely that top-down and potentially regressive transitions are likely to be imposed from above. From nuclear energy, to fracking and geo-engineering, the severity of the threat of climate change in particular, has been invoked to justify the adoption of these controversial technologies.

The fear and the danger is that this creates ripe conditions for what has been called post-politics and the bypassing of the normal politics of deliberation and contestation by diverse publics. Crisis induces states of exception, as we know from processes of securitization in other areas of politics. Instances of this include moves by the UK government to override the decision of Lancashire Council to reject fracking on the basis that it is a necessary part of the transition to a low carbon economy, or efforts to speed up the approval process for new nuclear power plants under a similar guise.

Photo credit: Friends of the Earth International, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The corresponding assumption is that more progressive social transformations and Just Transitions are those which come ‘from below’ through mobilization by social movements aimed at building new norms, challenging prevailing values and confronting existing distributions of power. Movements combating patriarchy, slavery and colonialism might be examples of where this has happened in the past. Arguably, there is something potentially unique about green transformations in that they have to be made against the clock. To avoid runaway climate change we need ‘transformative’ and ‘systemic’ change within the next 10–20 years. This in the language of UN scientists and bureaucrats, not that of revolutionaries.

There is a dilemma here. Short-term action may mean going with the grain of where power lies and facing up to the reality of where control of production, finance and technology currently lies. On the one hand, it is precisely the reluctance of incumbent actors to address challenges of sustainability through denial, greenwashing, false solutions and foot-dragging that has led to our current predicament. And despite acknowledgement of the power of restless capital to drive waves of creative destruction, in the end investors are looking for a new and more profitable round of accumulation which would be unlikely to take the form of a ‘Just Transition’.

Rapid but ill-conceived transitions — imposed from above- and without social acceptance- also have their costs. Most technological waves of innovation rise on the tide of optimism about their ability to deal with all problems that have troubled their predecessors, while bringing unprecedented levels of wealth. Think of the rapid expansion of hydropower or nuclear booms fuelled by promises of electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. The belief in the transformative power of carbon pricing and trading, which continues to grip the imagination of the World Bank, numerous governments setting up emission trading schemes as well as many in the environmental movement, has, critics suggest, served as a decade long distraction which has served to delay efforts to effectively confront climate change.

On the other hand, the window of opportunity to avoid more catastrophic forms of climate change is closing and so insisting on addressing all social inequalities and challenging power relations as a precondition to transition can be also recipe for intransigence. After all, although capitalism is prone to crisis and instability, it has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for resilience over 400 years that is unlikely to come to an end any time soon. Rejecting all state-led and market pathways to change also comes with a price.

Interestingly, though arguments about the need to attend to all social inequalities and exclusions as part of a transition often come from the political Left, incumbent industry actors often make similar arguments under the guise of advocating for a ‘Just Transition’. Calls for re-training and compensation for poorer workers in sectors that will lose out from the restructuring and managed decline that form an inevitable and necessary part of transitions and processes of ‘creative destruction’ make sense and appeal to an intrinsic sense of fairness. But they can also be employed as a political device by fossil fuel industries, for example, to undermine calls for more ambitious action. Whereas under capitalism businesses routinely uproot their operations and relocate to other jurisdictions with loss of jobs and devastation for communities left in their wake, and there are rarely calls for special treatment to cope with the social effects of adjustment, somehow fossil fuel industries, because of their structural power, are afforded special privileges. Hence, in an ironic twist, powerful fractions of capital invoke a previously undetectable concern for workers’ welfare when faced with profit losses due to enhanced action on climate change. To be clear, the concern for the welfare of workers in incumbent industries is something we need to address. But we need to be wary of crocodile tears of industry managers’ new found concern for the ‘Just Transition’.

Photo Credit: Peg Hunter via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

So where does this leave progressive action for Just Transitions?

Firstly, it is worth recalling that delaying action also has a justice implication. As temperatures rise vulnerable populations of the poor the world over are the first in line to suffer the effects of climate change- a problem to which they have contributed very little. The human and social costs of climate change increase markedly every time action of the required scale is delayed into the future. In this instance, perfection may be the enemy of progress. Muddling through, engaging in the messy politics of negotiation and compromise, learning by doing- these are the incremental, inevitable and necessary day to day politics of transition. Not from a preferred starting point, but in a world not of ‘our’ choosing with all its attendant injustices and problems. Trying to reframe key questions — from meeting ever expanding demand to demand reduction, for example, are critical alongside questioning underlying logics and assumptions. Merely saying we wouldn’t start from here is not.

Secondly, the conversation about justice has to be opened up to its global and even intergenerational dimensions in ways that go beyond the national focus of most discussions and dialogues on energy transitions. One country’s energy choices cannot be seen in isolation from their global effects- in terms of shifts in demand for land (for biofuels for example) for minerals (for car batteries or PV panels for example) or the waste they generate (nuclear for example). Justice is oftentimes relative and not absolute in most cases- so it is often a case of minimizing injustices and maximizing justice for the majority of the world’s citizens in handling complex trade-offs. The principles by which this should proceed will no doubt be deeply contested and we don’t yet have democratic institutions for adequately dealing with issues of representation and participation across regions and time. Civil society advocacy in global fora fills some of the void, but we also know its limitations.

Thirdly, we need to challenge the idea that rapid change is necessarily top-down and regressive. A combination of divestment of finance from fossil fuels by major investors and laws and regulations that many governments have recently shown themselves willing to adopt to keep fossil fuels in the ground (such as recent moratoria on new oil exploration and production announced in 2017 and 2018 by a number of countries including New Zealand, France, Costa Rica and Belize), or which set clear near-term timetables for their phase out, show what is possible. Deeper shifts in culture and values are surely key to embedding change in practices and behaviours of all social actors, as well as challenging power. But they can also change quite rapidly in ways which force responses from corporations and states alike.

Fourthly, justice has procedural as well as distributional elements of course and so opening up spaces for deeper and more meaningful engagements with different pathways for transitioning to a lower carbon economy, for example, could usefully subject to more rounded and critical scrutiny the pros and cons of different options. This could ensure advocates of more rapid transitions are more attentive to near and longer term social justice implications, but also that those resisting such claims are obliged to spell out proposals for rapid reductions in emissions compatible with pathways of 1.5 or 2 degrees warming, for example. This might help widen the circle of engaged actors from business, labour and environmental groups to others that have entirely different visions for near-term but deeper change that might include serious efforts at demand reduction, big changes to planning regulations, agreements to leave fossil fuels in the ground or to reallocate fossil fuel subsidies. All proposals would have to be compatible with a pathway that keeps warming below 1.5 degrees if they are not to further immiserize many of the world’s poorest people.

This would shift the debate away from the narrower discussion of which combinations of big technologies and infrastructures can meet rising energy demand in a warming world without first attending to the possibility of reducing demand and questioning patterns of consumption and production through changes to work (a shorter working week), different models of mobility, localizing economies and shifts to the tax regime, for example. This allows us to pose (and engage with) the more difficult questions of who and what transitions are for and who sets their terms as well as the overall direction of change. This suggests at least one way that rapid and just can be squared in a way that goes against the grain without bypassing the necessity and inevitability of the messy politics of compromise and negotiation.


Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex and currently an Independent Social Research Foundation Political Economy Fellow.

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.