With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) just around the corner, there is a lot of focus on climate initiatives and the transition to net zero. It is hugely reassuring to see so much focus on such important topics, and even more so to see the level of pragmatism that is increasingly evident from many governments and investors around the world.
There is a real understanding that transition is the key word. We cannot realistically expect companies and economies to switch off their carbon emissions overnight. Therefore long-term investments in technology and shifting practices and behaviours are needed to achieve realistic goals.
Equally as important, though less widely discussed, is the need to be conscious of the potential social impacts, both of climate change and of shifting practices towards a carbon neutral economy. A just transition aims to ensure that:
“everyone shares in the benefits of transitioning to a low-carbon world, including workers, communities and consumers. It means combining urgent action to address climate change with a continued focus on decent work, reducing inequality and upholding human rights.”[i]
The individuals, social groups and societies that are likely to be most negatively affected by decarbonisation policies are often those already losing out[ii]. Examples of these groups include vulnerable workers deep in supply chains, indigenous populations and communities who inhabit desirable landscapes or those with limited access to energy supplies.
Transition comes with opportunity and risk
While the transition to cleaner sources of energy will create many jobs, it will also cause other roles to become obsolete. The social and economic impacts of lower employment in regions that lose jobs as a consequence of this transition could be severe if not consciously managed. Risks include rising unemployment, an overreliance on welfare/social benefits, as well as the associated decline in health.
There is also the possibility that vulnerable workers further down the supply chain may be exploited as global demand for certain materials increases to meet the needs of society. Many of the key components for batteries, for example, are mined in parts of the world with a chequered history when it comes to child and slave labour.
The new infrastructure and energy projects required to transition to cleaner sources of energy also require land. It is important to ensure local populations and communities are treated fairly at that stage. There is a risk that in their enthusiasm to rapidly transition to more environmentally friendly sources of energy, governments might be tempted to overlook human rights considerations on the basis that the ends justify the means.[iii]
Not every country and region will be able to transition to greener forms of energy at the same rate due to a range of factors, such as the associated costs, the infrastructure requirements or the suitability of the environment. It is vital to keep access to energy as the key priority, perhaps regardless of its source in the short term. This is to help stop certain communities becoming disadvantaged and restricted in their access to other amenities and services such as food, education, work and mental health.[iv]
At COP 24 in 2018, the parties recognised that consideration of the social aspects of the transition to a low carbon economy is crucial to its success, especially in gaining social approval. Both to ensure the success of vital infrastructure and energy projects by avoiding delays and roadblocks as a consequence of protests and boycotts, and to facilitate the general shifts in behaviour that are necessary for the long-term success of a low-carbon future. [v]
We must keep in mind that whilst the bigger picture of achieving a more sustainable, low-carbon existence is the ultimate goal – this end does not justify using any means. There are huge percentages of the world’s population whose livelihoods are dependent on unsustainable practices and it is essential that they are not marginalised or disadvantaged in the pursuit of a ‘greater good’.