Norms and Values
How Just a Just Transition Can Be?

You cannot want clean energy and at the same time reject mining. Or to put it another way, you can reject mining, but at the same time you have to be willing to give up available energy, as well as mobile phones, laptops, cars, trains and planes. It's a ripping choice that most probably will not be made, writes Valdai Club expert Francine Mestrum.

Climate justice and social justice go hand in hand. It has become impossible to talk about environmental problems or about poverty and inequality without mentioning this mantra. It is easy to say but how easy is it to achieve? What does a “just transition” mean in daily political practice?

Environmental policies necessarily imply technical and scientific knowledge, speaking about “justice” in this context necessarily means looking at its “social’ consequences. Social justice covers a very broad range of issues, from social protection to poverty and inequality, up to clean air and potable water, that is, environmental issues. It is simply impossible to separate the two. 

The reason why the obvious has to be stated and questioned is twofold. One, as with every other major global problem, the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer most, whether it be women and children, indigenous people or the extremely poor. Poor countries lack the necessary infrastructure to protect them from natural catastrophes, poor people live in the most vulnerable places, while economic and political power will help people, in all countries, to have access to the safest and healthiest opportunities. Moreover, in terms of emissions, poor countries and poor people have no responsibility at all for the dire state of the planet. The richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity whereas 70 % of greenhouse gas emissions come from around one hundred big corporations. 

The second reason is that many measures governments might take to reduce CO2 emissions are often not affordable for the poorest parts of our societies. Whether it is the isolation of houses, the replacement of polluting cars or the consumption of healthier but more expensive “bio” food, poor people lack the financial resources to cope with them.

It is often said that with climate change we are all in the same boat, but it would be more correct to say we are all in the same storm but in different kinds of boats. Some will be relatively safe, others remain extremely vulnerable.

The solution offered by global and national authorities is also twofold. 

At the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, developed countries agreed to help poorer countries in their adaption and mitigation efforts and to fund collectively up to 100 billion US$ per year by 2020. At COP21 the commitment is confirmed in the Paris Agreement of 2015 and again at COP26 and the Glasgow Global Pact. In the meantime, the end date has moved to 2023 so countries are said to be “on track”. Mention is also made of the “trillions of private sector flows” and the efforts of development banks.

At national levels, governments usually propose that for every environmental measure, one checks how to “soften” the consequences for poor people, with subsidies or with longer enforcement periods.

The success of these proposals, however, is rather limited.

At the international level, rich countries may be formally “on track” but do not in fact provide the necessary funding. They do ask poor countries to make net-zero pledges, but at the same time veto a proposal for a “loss and damage facility” developing countries are asking for. In fact, they continue to ignore their historical responsibility. Countries like Norway continue to invest in their own oil and gas industry, but expect poor countries to stop theirs, which many activists call “green colonialism”. Also, many activists point to the excessive focus on private investments for the energy transition, while only public funding can ensure the necessary results with a fair outcome.

As for national compensatory measures, the problem is different. Till now, results are very mitigated and citizens do not seem very eager to change their consumption models. The reason is obvious: environmental measures are always presented as a “burden”, away from tangible material progress. Whether one is poor or middle class, there is no one who willingly takes a step backwards, however much more “happiness” and “connectedness” is promised. For succeeding, two things seem necessary: a re-wording of policies in positive terms and a taking into account of workers’ interests.

This brief overview points to three major problems that hinder the compatibility of climate and social justice:

At the discursive level everything looks fine. Commitments are made, responsibilities are recognised in terms of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, the Sustainable Development Goals mention social as well as environmental issues.

However, looking at it in more detail, the picture changes and one can see the problems ahead: the linkage between poverty and “sustainable development” is extremely fragile. This became very clear at the Johannesburg Summit of 2002 where “poverty” is mentioned both as a dependent and as an independent variable of development. There are ambivalent and frequent references to poverty eradication as “an overarching objective” of sustainable development – that is the desirable outcome of a successful development process – and “an essential requirement” for sustainable development – that is a means to and end. This makes for a circular reasoning that does not strengthen the social dimension of sustainable development. Add to this that the whole point of “poverty” only arrived at the international agenda in 1990 in order to strengthen the “structural adjustment” agenda and to replace the existing welfare states, putting a further emphasis on the need for growth. Policy coherence, then, cannot be an automatic result and one starts to question the willingness of States and international organisations to really tackle the problem. Social justice, then, as well as “sustainable development”, at the level of people, become a very weak and ambivalent goal. The Sustainable Development Goals confirm this analysis, with their extremely careful reference to ILO’s social protection floors and their very detailed environmental ambitions. 

The second problem goes for rich and poor countries and concerns extractivism. As I have already explained elsewhere, according to a World Bank study, it will not be easy to switch completely to clean energy. If one wants to achieve the objective of a maximum temperature increase of 2°C, a total of more than three billion tons of minerals will be needed for the production of clean energy by 2050. The Economist already speaks of inevitable bottlenecks. The production of graphite, lithium and cobalt must increase by 450% compared to 2018.

Other minerals that are increasing less spectacularly but still need to be mined are iron, copper, aluminium, chromium, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silver, titanium, zinc and vanadium. The exploitation of these raw materials can have serious ecological and social consequences, therefore the popularity of “clean” energy may rapidly decline. The protest that already exists against extractivism in Latin America and in Europe, speaks volumes about the dilemmas that await in terms of direct contamination of soils and water and in terms of loss of livelihoods. But you cannot want clean energy and at the same time reject mining. Or to put it another way, you can reject mining, but at the same time you have to be willing to give up available energy, as well as mobile phones, laptops, cars, trains and planes. It's a ripping choice that most probably will not be made. The demand for energy keeps rising all over the world, which is normal with a growing and poor population. 

A great deal of attention will have to be paid to the possibilities of recycling and reusing raw materials, but that too is not for the short term. Waste management will be a hugely difficult task. We keep dreaming of green and blue hydrogen, capture and storage of CO2 as well as nuclear fusion, but these are technologies that are not yet sufficiently developed and, therefore, do not offer a solution in the short term.

As for the “burdens” of environmental policy, this may be the easiest problem to solve: an urgent reformulation of policies in positive terms is possible and seems to be necessary. Behavioural economics and nudging have not been able to change people’s minds and consumption models, so another approach is needed. It is perfectly possible: many environmental measures can perfectly well be presented in terms of social justice, in measures that no reasonable being can reject. The insulation of houses, making alternative energy sources cheaper, putting into perspective a city with clean air, providing healthy drinking water… It also means chemical corporations will have to be tackled, to avoid dangerous pesticides and toxic residues in food. Social justice can be an excellent entry-point for better and more efficient environmental policies that all reasonable people can easily accept. And yes, this will have a price, but it seems obvious it is a price public authorities will have to pay if they want things done, preserve the environment and protect people at the same time.

The current COVID crisis has demonstrated once more that matters of social justice are inextricably linked to matters of ecology. One cannot defend public health without clean air, good drinking water and healthy food. If ever there is an example on how social justice depends on a clean environment, this is it.

Making climate justice and social justice compatible is basically a matter of policy coherence, but the successive COPs and the UN and World Bank proposals for social policy do not really help. Moreover, there are doubts on the willingness of governments to really tackle both problems since they do not even try to word the solutions in positive terms. No doubt big business will stand in the way, as will be the military. We should know however that nothing will help if large chemical and mining companies can continue to pollute the major rivers, if the seas continue to be fished empty and if Bezos and Musk continue to develop their plans for space tourism. Even if we all stopped emitting CO2, we are still heading for a planetary disaster if the military apparatus of various countries continues to function as it does now. 

Most probably, the major mantra should be “Do no harm”, not to the environment and not to people. This certainly requires not only political willingness but more research on the intersectionality of different and inextricable sectors. It also requires more and serious reflection on strategies of which fair taxes will necessarily be a part. It is a long way to go. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.