Zoning in on Net Zero: A just transition that leaves no one behind

Solar panel engineer

In the race towards Net Zero, we’re all winners, surely? Unfortunately, not. The rapid shift to a low carbon future will see different groups and regions impacted in very different ways. The pandemic has taught us that the human and economic costs of a global crisis are not felt equally, and that the sheer scale of effort required to address the far greater existential threat of climate change is not equitable. 

Tuesday’s momentous announcements at COP26 take the number of countries pledging to reach Net Zero to 1301. These targets are vitally important in guiding emissions reductions in limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels , but it is action to transition these economies to meet these targets that is needed, and fast. 

Change is already very much underway, with efforts accelerating to decarbonise energy, transport, and heat rapidly becoming a centre stage issue. Announcements on commitments to halting deforestation, cutting methane emissions, limiting coal, and financing for energy access have already come out of COP26 so far. 

The scale and pace of ambition is marked by strong commitments to decommission existing coal fired power plants, halt the construction of new plants, and banning sales of petrol and diesel cars, all while being replaced by new, low carbon alternatives. These are encouraging signs. 

And we all stand to gain from the transition. Improved health (including respiratory health), cleaner natural environments and ecosystems, and overall reduced climate change related risks, will particularly benefit those most vulnerable to the impacts of a warming world. With new innovations in clean technologies, new jobs and industries will prosper and many communities will thrive. 

However, as with any paradigm shift, the impact and repercussions are not always spread equally. As carbon intensive, polluting industries decline, there will inevitably be an effect on the labour market linked to those industries, with workers and their communities feeling the impact. There can even be unintended costs resulting from clean energy projects, including potential land dispossession, and simply a change in the way of life, such as the need to retrain, which may be unaffordable for some. 

At the household level, while some may capitalise on new technologies, such as solar panels or electric vehicles, others may miss out for lack of financial means, because of a lack of adequate infrastructure nearby2. For example, low carbon transport options such as e-scooters or bicycles may not be appropriate for the elderly or disabled, while digital, smart technologies are not used by the less digitally literate. 

A just transition is one where considerations of equity and fairness are embedded. It is a concept used to draw attention to how costs and benefits generated by the move to a Net Zero society are shared, and how this might be done fairly. The necessary transition of the energy system presents an opportunity to improve the wellbeing of everyone in society – but it requires careful consideration, planning, and engagement to realise this. 

The origins of a ‘just transition’
The concept of a just transition is not a new one. It started in the labour movement in the United States, as unions sought protection for workers in the face of increasing environmental protections. However, the concept has broadened out in recent years to encompass not only concerns for protecting workers and communities affected by the move away from unsustainable industries to one concerned with addressing other social and economic inequalities through fairer distributions of costs and benefits. It is also concerned with giving affected citizens an active role in determining their low carbon future. Though there is no clear definition as to what it means, a just transition can be thought of more holistically - as an umbrella term for other concepts marrying environmental concerns with social justice – including environmental justice, and climate justice13

The aim of just transition should be to create a more equal society, whilst still moving towards a decarbonised future. Where policymakers acknowledge the different experiences of exclusion from the benefits of the transition and prioritise diverse, local engagement, the costs borne by vulnerable groups and communities could be minimised. To truly be a just transition, it must also be inclusive. 

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for just transition, there are some core principles that can support a more equitable sharing of benefits and costs. 

1.    Recognise that there always will be those who benefit, and those that do not  

For a transition to be just, it must actively work to address existing, and potential, social inequalities that may arise from or be exacerbated by the change. These inequalities can be based on employment status, proximity to industry or infrastructure and socioeconomic status, as well as social characteristics such as gender, immigrant status, ethnicity, age, ability, and other protected characteristics. This will determine those who are able to affect decisions around the transition, and who stands to gain or lose from these decisions. 
It is important to remember that not everyone will feel the impact in the same way, and the intersection of some of these characteristics can deepen negative experiences of a transition. For example, evidence suggests that women and men are impacted in different ways by declines in coal-reliant communities3. Recognising who is excluded from benefitting from low carbon technologies now, will shape how the benefits and costs of low carbon technologies are distributed in the future. 

Protection from negative impacts from the transition and empowering vulnerable and marginalised people should be a priority in evaluating impacts and designing support measures. 

2.    Ensure fair and inclusive planning processes 

Fair procedures for engagement can lead to decisions about the transition that promote equitable outcomes. These processes should prioritise fair representation, transparency, and an incorporation of local knowledge. Capacity building for participating in such processes is likely to be needed since some groups in society continue to experience sustained barriers to political and economic participation in the energy sector, such as women4, indigenous peoples5, and the disabled6. With a broad range of citizens’ interests heard, including those of marginalised groups, the chances that benefits and burdens are more equitably spread, increase7.

Broad representation of those affected by changes in the local environment and local economy is key – citizens can participate in the negotiation and shaping of the vision for transition in their local context, rather than have it imposed on them. They can help determine the kinds of mitigating actions that would be appropriate to meet their needs, be it alternative livelihood options, capacity building and retraining, support services, social protection, or community development projects. Policy changes, projects and technologies are likely to have far greater social acceptance when they form part of a shared vision for the transition8 and where local knowledge is valued and taken into account. Deliberative engagement approaches like the UK’s Climate Assembly, or the Participatory Value Evaluation in Heat Transitions Vision in Utrecht have enabled a range of ordinary citizens and local voices to influence policy decisions and share local perspectives9,10

3.    Support affected workers, communities, regions with their address existing inequalities 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to equitably distributing costs and benefits of a transition. Investments in opportunities will be more feasible in some geographies because of the natural advantage, existing industry and skilled workforces, and infrastructure. For example, while jobs in renewables like solar and wind may seem like attractive replacements for local coal mining jobs, they are not available or viable everywhere11. But for some communities facing the decline of fossil fuel industries, the advent of new, innovative technologies, such as green hydrogen from solar or wind, and carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) present an opportunity to provide jobs, and industrial leadership. There are opportunities for work in natural habitat restoration, energy efficiency and heat pump installation, and to pivot skilled jobs in oil and gas towards, for instance, offshore wind. 

To realise these opportunities, long term plans and incentives are needed to attract investments to where they are needed. Investment will also be needed to upskill workers, in re-education and training, regional green technology research and development, and in local economic development to diversify away from fossil fuels. Where it is not feasible to support workers to find new employment in greener industries, social protections may be needed. Historic regional inequalities will mean some are further behind than others, so those with lower financial capacity should be supported first. 

There are significant differences in approaches needed for the Global South. While the global pandemic has served to highlight the urgency of considering the human impact of global change, having created, or widened social inequalities within countries12, the inequality of vaccine distribution worldwide has demonstrated how new technologies can leave the Global South further behind. 

With greater numbers in the informal workforce, high levels of unemployment and a lack of access to energy services altogether, a transition needs to not only be about job transformation, but job creation, too. Providing access to clean, sustainable, and reliable sources of energy can deliver opportunities for new industries and livelihoods, but also has the potential to address persistent social and economic inequalities too, such as providing entrepreneurship opportunities for women. 

COP26 has the potential to drive strong ambition to deliver an inclusive transition. . In the past week, more than 30 nations have signed the Just Transition Declaration, recognising the need to ensure no one is left behind in Net Zero economies. We are also seeing encouraging commitments to financing just and inclusive transitions in developing and emerging markets, such as the UK government announcing a further £126 million of  scale-up funding for the Transforming Energy Access (TEA) platform, part of a package of support for an inclusive and just transition. This was quickly followed by the president of the European Climate Foundation, Laurence Tubiana, announcing the launch of Carbon Trust backed Coal Asset Transition Accelerator (CATA), to support emerging economies move away from coal in a just manner. These are significant initiatives, but we need to go further. Strong principles of justice, gender equality and social inclusion need to be embedded across all our commitments and actions to reach Net Zero. Our transition to a Net Zero future must not only be a sustainable one, but it must also be inclusive and just. 

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