During the Prep Com, the term ‘just transition’ has been in and out of the green economy text so many times, it’s like playing the hokey cokey. The G77 deleted it from the text today, but at the last minute the EU asked for it to be put back in, and the G77 agreed. A round of applause for the EU!
It’s incredibly important that the term ‘just transition’ is retained in the text, because let’s not kid ourselves – the new, low-carbon economy could be one that retains all of the inequities and corporate greed of our current economic system. One where companies profit from the transition, while workers are stuck in green McJobs, doing the essential work of decarbonising our energy systems and retrofitting our homes but in a vicious circle of low pay and few opportunities for progression or training. And allowing any kind of transition to happen in an organic fashion is not a solution either, as the ensuing chaos will almost certainly harm those who are in need of most help. Significant periods of economic restructuring in the past have often happened in a chaotic fashion that has left ordinary workers, their families and communities, to bear the brunt. Indeed in the UK, many individuals and communities are still paying the price for the rapid shift away from industrial production over the last 30 years.
Perhaps there is a middle way, one that respects workers’ rights, the rights of the poor, and our planetary boundaries. This is where the idea of Just Transition may come in handy. Just Transition is a framework for a fair and sustainable shift to a low carbon economy, proposed by trade unions and supported by environmental NGOs, that seeks to prevent injustice becoming a feature of environmental transition. Just Transition recognises that support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families.
The framework is not fool-proof – it does not deal with the question of whether capitalism should be our preferred economic model going forward, nor does it a build a comprehensive vision of a new world. Questions about growth, nuclear, and means of production go unanswered. However, it is the beginning of an essential conversation about how we can create a new system that is both economically and ecologically viable.
What is not questioned is the speed at which we must act. The need to transition away from our current economic and social model in this country and the rest of the developed world is an urgent one. We are experiencing rapidly rising levels of inequality and, according to the IEA, we have only an estimated 5 years before the fight to mitigate dangerous climate change becomes a fruitless one.
Yes, the challenge ahead is immense, but so is our movement. A fair society that respects our earth may seem out of reach, but that is all the more reason to keep striving for it. As the social theorist David Harvey has said, “Of course this is utopian! But so what! We cannot afford not to be.”
About the authorHanna Thomas
Green Jobs Director at The Otesha Project UK, leading the work of the East London Green Jobs Alliance. MSc Climate Change & Policy. Tracking the negotiations through a grassroots lens! Rio+20 Fellow.