Why a ‘Just Transition’? Decarbonisation and economic justice

Commitments to a net-zero carbon society raise questions as to who may bear the costs of this, and who might gain. In this blog we examine calls for a ‘just transition’ that sees decarbonisation as an opportunity to address social and economic inequalities in Wales.

2019 has been the year when the term ‘climate emergency’ came to prominence. Responding to mounting evidence and heightened public pressure, the Welsh Government became one of the first nations to declare a Climate Emergency. 2019 is also the year in which Welsh Government committed to achieving at least a 95% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, supported by the publication of key policy documents; most notably A Low-Carbon Wales and A Climate-conscious Wales. Alongside the recommendations of the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), this signals a commitment to the decarbonisation of the Welsh economy within the next 30 years.

But whilst there is widespread political agreement on the need to decarbonise, both within Wales and more widely, the wider implications of the transition from a carbon-intensive economy are not always clear. Translating a net-zero aspiration to reality requires detailed and careful policy proposals, as well as political choices about what to prioritise during the transition to a low-carbon economy. A further complication will be that our policy decisions today will determine what choices are open to us later, just as Wales’s present economic landscape is shaped by its past.

Economic actions have economic consequences. Decarbonisation will require a fundamental reshaping of the economic system and will have similarly wide-ranging effects. One political choice will be whether decarbonisation is conceived of in isolation, or whether it relates to other policy ambitions. The idea of a ‘just transition’, as Darryn Snell has argued, was developed by the international labour movement ‘to remind governments, environmentalists and others about the social implications of environmental protection’. It offers a framework for putting in place a decarbonisation agenda that protects the rights and opportunities of those who are made vulnerable under the existing economic order, or who may become vulnerable as part of the transition. The concept has gained considerable traction within the UK. The CCC report called for a just transition to be part of the process of achieving net zero in the UK, while the Scottish Government has put in place a Just Transition Commission to help it deliver decarbonisation.

But why is a just transition a useful concept for working with the decarbonisation agenda? One reason is to consider the outcomes of ‘unjust transitions’, where shifts in the economic base of an area have not been accompanied by protections for affected workers. The closure of the South Wales coalfields in the 1980s offers a stark example of the social costs that can follow. A recent report places the blame for this on a laissez-faire approach to economic development and a failure of businesses and government to prioritise the building of ‘a more sustainable and successful regional economy for the Valleys’. This resulted in structural economic weaknesses including poor-quality employment and lower wages. There is a risk that this experience will be repeated unless decarbonisation is implemented with due regard to its effects on places and people — especially in Wales where  industry accounts for almost one-third of emissions.

Beyond mitigating harm, a just transition could also help to address existing inequalities, such as concentrations of poverty or a lack of access to economic opportunities. This might require moving away from a sector-based framework, where decarbonisation is conceived of in terms of parts of the economy (such as energy production), towards a more holistic and potentially place-based model. This understanding of a just transition would see decarbonisation as an opportunity for a more balanced economy, rather than as a threat to existing workforces. More decentralised production, including energy production, could reinvigorate local economies, for example. And emphasising inclusive models of ownership and co-production could give marginalised groups more say in how their communities develop. This would expand the transition so that it can achieve other policy priorities, particularly the goals set out in the Well-Being of Future Generations Act.

With this in mind, we are working to consider what governance approaches might help to ensure that the decarbonisation process is socially and spatially just in Wales. In subsequent blog posts, we will discuss what a just transition might look like, and how our understanding of governance might be affected by a just transition framework.