The 2020s are the Climate Change Decade: Can an urgent transition be a just transition?
By Charlie Wilson and Claire Hoolohan, University of East Anglia
Climate emergency. Climate breakdown. Net zero by 2050. Halving emissions in a decade. The need for urgency in the low-carbon transition is clear.
School strikes and inter-generational equity. Low-lying states and the evident impacts of climate change. Austerity, inequality and gilets jaunes. Moral outrage at high-emitters and Flygskam. The need for justice in the low-carbon transition is also clear.
But can an urgent low-carbon transition also be just? The simplicity of the question is deceiving.
Low-carbon transition is not a singular, planned, managed trajectory of change. It takes place at different levels, involving different people, in different contexts.
Justice is also multiple and contested. Climate justice is concerned with who caused the problem and who’s being impacted by it. Energy justice is concerned with fairness in decision-making about what and where new low-carbon infrastructure is built, but also how and by whom. Economic justice is concerned with people’s ability or opportunity to participate. Environmental justice is concerned with who and where will suffer from the decline of natural systems.
Precipitous declines in emissions have inescapable implications for justice. Tradeoffs and hard decisions will be faced. Mass manufacturing low-cost batteries may power the world’s electric vehicles, but who bears the cost of lithium mining?
The digital economy may shift consumerism from owning goods to accessing services, but who will fall the wrong side of the digital divide? Land-hungry wind and solar may decarbonise the electricity supply, but what of local communities’ rights and voices?
All is not gloom. There are robust strategies for delivering on both justice and urgency needs.
First, apportioning emissions to individuals and activities reveals huge inequalities. If the top 10% of global emitters reduced their footprints to the average EU level, global emissions would fall by a third. Constraining the profligate few can deliver rapid emission reductions without denting quality of life for (almost) all.
Second, perceived fairness increases public support for policies. Perceived unfairness fuels resistance. Fiscal instruments with appropriate revenue recycling can be progressive strategies for reducing emissions. Social welfare policies support communities and workforces losing out in decarbonisation efforts.