Delivering a Just Transition: What would it look like?

In our previous blog we looked at why a just transition could be an equitable means of decarbonising the economy. This post looks in more detail at what this might look like in the Welsh context, and how different approaches to justice can facilitate a just transition.

We have argued that a just transition should emphasise social and spatial justice: i.e., that it should aim to provide more equitable access to economic opportunities as well as address concentrations of poor economic and social outcomes. In other words, it is about making sure that the impact of a transition does not impact one group of people unduly, and attempting to use the resources and economic changes that decarbonisation will bring to improve conditions for the most vulnerable. This means moving beyond an idea of a ‘just transition’ of being only ‘a fair and equitable process of moving towards a post-carbon society’ and towards a more substantive idea of what ‘justice’ is in the Welsh context, and how it might be applied as something fundamental to the transition itself.

One element of this is combining different approaches to justice. One approach is ‘distributional’ justice, which at its most basic is about who should have what resources. In the Welsh context, this means addressing inequalities in income and opportunity thrown up by Wales’ economic geography as well as by improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged. This is joined by procedural justice, making sure that the structure of decision-making is fair. This might mean participatory decision-making or co-production, something emphasised by the ‘five ways of working’ contained in the Well-Being of Future Generations Act. Finally, restorative justice means putting right what has previously been made wrong — such as when a thief returns stolen property. In the Welsh context, the potential is there to right the wrongs of previous economic transitions such as in the South Wales Valleys. It could also mean taking advantage of the potential of ecological restoration or management to provide sustainable jobs to local communities where possible.

The spatial dimension to justice does not only mean focusing on where the transition is taking place, but on the different approaches that will be necessary in each context. The right approach for a steel worker in Port Talbot will be different from that for a hill farmer in mid-Wales, but each should be informed by what promotes equity and resilience in their local economies. This could mean ensuring that the benefit from manufacturing or installing renewable energy is felt in the communities that host wind or solar farms, for instance.  This will be particularly important if a just transition is to be used to distribute economic opportunity across Wales, whether that is to ‘left-behind’ urban communities or to rural areas struggling with poverty.

Ensuring that this approach succeeds, however, means taking seriously the idea that redistribution should be accompanied by recognition. None of these approaches will feel like justice if they are not informed and supported by the voices of the communities that they affect. This can be seen in recent controversies over proposed land use changes to enable reforestation or changes to farming subsidies. While well-intentioned, these changes have highlighted real concerns over potential negative effects on rural communities and Welsh language and culture which need to be addressed if these approaches are to be seen as just.

Combining redistribution with recognition in this way is particularly relevant in Wales due to the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, whose statutory well-being goals include ‘A Wales of cohesive communities’ and ‘A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language’. It seems clear that balancing these goals with some of the radical economic change that may become necessary will require careful discussion and balancing of different priorities. That is why wherever possible the different aspects of justice should complement each other, rather than compete with each other.  Understanding and addressing concerns about the effects of decarbonisation on important cultural and community goods does not replace the need for decarbonisation or for other forms of justice, but will make it easier to pursue those aims. While hard choices will still need to be made, an approach which recognises the agency and voice of all actors will help to create the conditions where these choices can be accepted.

Delivering a just transition would therefore need more than simply ensuring that the ‘costs’ of decarbonisation are dealt with through compensatory measures, but should be seen as an opportunity for engaging with communities across Wales to discover what sort of economy, and what sort of society, they want to live in.