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Just transition: change by design, not disaster

The COP26 Forum “Just Transition for All?”, organized by Climate Reality Europe Team UK, brought together five speakers to share their vision of a just transition in relation to three of the five COP 26 Presidency themes: nature, energy, and transport.

Professor Tim Benton, Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House

The first of the panelists, Professor Tim Benton, who leads the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, spoke about the impacts of climate on food systems. Stressing the urgency of the climate crisis and the currently huge losses in productivity resulting from heat, floods, and wildfires, he outlined the opportunities that exist to ensure justice in the inevitable transformation of the agricultural sector.

Faced with the need to feed a growing population, deforestation is being carried out to accommodate monocultures that are intended not to meet local needs but to produce cheap, nutritionally poor foods to supply a global demand created by marketing. As a result, agriculture is driving injustice and contributing to poor diets, food waste, ill health, biodiversity loss, and air and water pollution.

Professor Benton presented two alternative visions for the future of agriculture. The business-as-usual approach involves the intensification of agriculture in order to protect forests. However, intensification inevitably results in fewer jobs and more pollution and creates a system in which the supply of cheap but poor diets is more important than meeting nutritional needs. In other words, we are continuing to wreck the planet using the poor as an excuse.

In the business-unusual approach, people and the planet are placed at the heart of the system. With greater emphasis on the production of fruits and vegetables, for example, the focus will move away from sugar and meat and their consumption will inevitably decrease. The resulting substantial savings in terms of healthcare can help fund the transformation of the agricultural system. It is a workable solution if the will exists to invest in fairness and justice rather than maintaining the current exponential growth in consumption.

Mira Kapfinger, Stay Grounded network

The next speaker, Mira Kapfinger, is co-founder of the Stay Grounded network that promotes alternatives to aviation. She pointed out that the COVID pandemic has precipitated what she called the tipping point in aviation and the tourist industry. Changes in the sector are inevitable and will be brought about either by design or disaster. Rather than attempting to restore the situation that existed before the pandemic by means of huge government subsidies for the industry, we should ideally be working towards global net-zero emissions in a way that protects the interests of employees and communities. Billions of Euros in taxpayer money are currently propping up an industry, which, while making a huge contribution to global emissions, is used by only 20 percent of the world’s population.

Arguments for a green future for the industry, in the form of e-fuels and green flying, are merely illusory and are deflecting attention away from the urgent need to protect the planet and provide job security for aviation workers. It is essential, for example, to halt any new training in the industry and to reskill people to work in other transport sectors, such as rail. Alternatives to flying and mass tourism must be identified in order to protect communities hit hard by both the pandemic and climate change.

Mira Kapfinger’s presentation included concrete examples of how a transition away from investment in aviation can be achieved. Skills and production facilities can be used for the well-being of society, for example, as in the case of Lucas Aviation, which recently began to produce medical equipment and ventilators. Similarly, airport infrastructure in Berlin has been transformed into recreational facilities.

Straightforward measures are available, including the introduction of a tax on frequent flyers, but such measures must be introduced as a matter of urgency: the transition must be fast if it is to be just and if the disaster is to be avoided.

Patryk Białas, BoMiasto, Katowice City Council

Next, Patryk Bialas, leader of the urban movement BoMiasto and Katowice city councilor, shared his experiences of public consultations and civil society involvement in the drafting of the Territorial Just Transition Plan for the Polish coal-mining region of Silesia. Faced with an over-regulated public consultation framework in which the regional government focused merely on producing the required document rather than listening to what local people had to say, and in a context in which guarantees of employment in the coal mines are being given up until 2049, he has been involved in grassroots efforts to educate and empower civil society activists. Similar online discussions have also been organized to educate journalists about the concept of just transition and to increase the visibility of the topic in the media. As a result of these online workshops and webinars, 12 demands were formulated and presented to the Polish Parliament in November 2020.

For Patryk Bialas, one of the key lessons to emerge from the consultations for Silesia’s Territorial Just Transition Plan is that just transition needs to be about people rather than money, and action rather than talk. Hard questions need to be asked, backed up by data and evidence. A coal-mining concession granted to a private investor, for example, means no support from the European Commission’s Just Transition Fund for six cities in the region. The response must be local protests by informed citizens who have had the opportunity to define their vision for a just future for their community.

Erik Dalhuijsen, Aberdeen Climate Action

Erik Dalhuijsen, a founder member of Aberdeen Climate Action, began the fourth presentation with the clear message that, because of the cost and contribution to the climate crisis, there is no justification for maintaining the oil and gas industries. An awareness of the climate crisis has existed since the 1980s, but failure to act in the subsequent three decades has led to what he referred to as the horrific outcome of our current situation. Company profits have consistently been put before environmental risks, with schemes such as carbon capture and storage and blue hydrogen holding out false promises in the interests of maintaining the fossil fuel industry.

The just transition will be achieved only if oil and gas companies are removed from the equation and the government commits to investing in the non-carbon sector. Erik Dalhuijsen spoke of the immorality on the part of the UK government, for example, of licensing new oilfield developments, and he insisted that the oil industry must be disconnected from the transition in order to eliminate any conflicts of interest.

He then provided an extremely graphic illustration of the simple choice we face in terms of “shaking off the chains of the oil industry” and achieving the goal of zero emissions in time: We are standing in a rising flood, with lead weights attached to our legs. Who do we turn to for help? To the person selling lead weights, or the person selling life jackets? What we are currently doing is buying lead weights that are painted to look like life jackets, but it is high time we listened to what else is on offer.

Jannata Giwangkara, Climate Works Australia

The final speaker, Jannata Giwangkara of Climate Works Australia, gave an overview of the situation in Indonesia, an area dependent on fossil fuel exports where just transition is a relatively new topic. Progress is being made in terms of a government commitment to include unions in the just transition debate, and stakeholders are increasingly involved in just transition issues. In nature-based sectors, the question encompasses issues such as social conflicts, migration, and land-use change, while in the energy sector the transition will involve decommissioning fossil fuel plants, raising the issue of unemployment in a region that is reliant on coal. Investing in mineral mining to supply the renewables sector will potentially generate new problems that will need to be addressed, such as landscape degradation.

In the transport sector, the exploration of biofuels and investments in public transport can potentially generate quality employment that will help to address the just transition challenge.

The key message of Jannata Giwangkara’s presentation was that while having a good plan is not in itself sufficient, not having a plan is a recipe for disaster.

Richard Lochhead, Minister for Just Transition, Employability and Fair Work

Rounding off the panelists’ presentations, Richard Lochhead, Scottish minister for just transition, employment, and fair work, spoke about Glasgow’s historical role in the industrial revolution and its obligation to tackle the climate crisis to which the city’s industries have contributed. The loss of Scotland’s coal industry in the 1980s was unplanned, and with no alternative employment created, the country still bears the scars. The Scottish Just Transition Commission has formulated recommendations, the first of which concerns the importance of drawing up plans that include all those affected, including NGOs, unions, and industries. Job opportunities can be created for energy sector workers, for example, through the transfer of skills from fossil fuel industries to the low-carbon sector.

Closing remarks

In the question and answer session that followed the presentations, panelists shared their thoughts on topics such as the controversial role of carbon capture and storage technologies and the questionable cleanness of so-called low-carbon hydrogen; the importance of shifting social norms, and making changes in behavior at individual level versus the need for government regulation; and the urgent need for moral leadership worldwide, comparable to the impact of figures such as William Wilberforce in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. On this issue, panelists highlighted a wide range of voices, from land defenders in Brazil and climate activists in Uganda, to Pope Francis, social media platforms, community networks, and upholders of the democratic system in which citizens hold their elected leaders accountable.

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