Just Transitions

by Elsa Merrick, Australia, ELP 2015
Written on July 26, 2015.

One of recurrent tensions that arose during the 3-week Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program was the seemingly irreconcilable trade-off between the necessity of curbing carbon emissions and the need for continued economic and social growth in developing countries. In the most part, speakers kept the two issues separate: some emphasized the need to dramatically reduce our reliance on carbon and regulate climate change, others outlined the necessity of ensuring that those in developing countries to achieve adequate standards of life and health. However - as shown by the recent stalled climate negotiations - the issues of climate change and development are intertwined: How can developing states continue economic development, while the international community works to reduce carbon use and regulate global warming?

The concept of just transitions is a grassroots response to this conundrum, which seeks to link climate change adaptation and resilience with those most vulnerable and reliant on carbon for economic and social development. The term was developed by trade unions in the 1980’s as a way of articulating the need to respond to environmental harm in a way that supports workers who are currently employed and reliant on the industries that cause harm. Used in the context of climate change, it represents the idea that "efforts to steer society towards a lower carbon future [must be] underpinned by attention to issues of equity and justice".1 The term has appeared in recent climate negotiation texts from the Cancun COP and the Rio+20 Earth Summit.2

While ensuring a just transition is becoming an increasingly important aspiration at international negotiations, what is exciting to me is it's potential for implementation at a local level. Recognition that the goals of climate resilience and economic development can be constructively combined encourages community-wide engagement with environmental problems. It supports wide coalition-building, and results in initiatives which construct "an alternative vision for a region"1 that combines aspirations for sustainability and development to provide solutions that resolve economic and environmental problems.

An example of just transitions in practice is seen in the Australian organization Earthworker3, which is currently setting up a factory to manufacture solar hot water heaters in the heart of Australia's coal production and burning district. This business venture will provide a community currently reliant on carbon-intensive industry with alternative employment that supports renewable energy and assists Australia in addressing climate change challenges. The motto of the organisation is “fostering fair, democratic workplaces, local manufacturing, strong communities and sustainable technologies”. Earthworker is actively contributing to a sustainable future and ensuring that those most vulnerable are included in the transition.

Thus, at a time when we are crossing our fingers for positive international climate outcomes in Paris, I think it is important to remember that climate change and development needs do not need to result in tensions or stalemates. At a local level, the idea of just transitions provides insight into how they can be constructively combined to secure a sustainable future that includes those most vulnerable.

1 Peter Newell & Dustin Mulveney, ‘The political economy of the ‘just transition’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 179, no. 2, pp. 132–140.
2 Dimitris Stevis & Romain Felli, ‘Global labour unions and just transition to a green economy’ International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 29-43.
3 Earthworker, http://earthworkercooperative.com.au