To achieve net-zero we must address social inequality

Net-zero carbon emissions won’t be sustainable if social inequalities aren’t addressed, writes Simone Abram from Durham University and Tom Pegram from UCL.

With COP26 on the horizon next year in Glasgow, all eyes are on securing the decarbonisation of the global economy. What this will mean and how it will be achieved will be hotly debated before, during and after the conference.

Thanks to COVID-19, the world has experienced an extraordinary simulation of what abrupt decarbonisation might look like. At least in relation to transport, the lockdown has revealed the enormous improvements in air quality and wildlife habitats, which result from curtailing fossil-fuelled transport.

But, at the same time, hastily implemented lockdown measures, including enforced confinement, have worsened inequalities that affect quality of life, access to food, education, work and mental health.

Growing public protests against pandemic restrictions, including road closures to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, have also mirrored the febrile and often polarising public debate around carbon-mitigation policies.

While evidence indicates that some of these anti-lockdown protests are funded by shadowy conservative groups also pushing climate denial, other protests have been driven by legitimate grievances. Both highlight the importance of designing policies that are equitable and improve people’s lives – as well as explaining those policies to citizens.

Global and local inequalities

These recent events underscore how any transition to a net-zero society must take into account social conditions.

Measures that worsen social inequalities and injustices are intolerable, causing serious harm, and are likely to provoke significant popular resistance – ultimately jeopardising any sustained climate action.

COP discussions have rightly focused on the difficult task of striking the right balance of duties between countries, especially between wealthy countries and emerging economies that did not benefit from the era of unrestricted industrialisation.

But it is important to remember that the effects of climate change and mitigation are also unequal within countries.

Intersecting differences, such as those related to gender, ethnicity, class, age, ability and more, affect the impact of policy interventions, as we have seen throughout the pandemic.

In the UK, research shows that those who lack access to affordable energy (living in poorly insulated housing, for example) are also more likely to live in areas with worse air pollution from traffic and industry.

In our COP26 briefing paper Just Transition: Pathways to Socially Inclusive Decarbonisation, we flag the important social justice concerns that a transition to a post-carbon economy must address.

Seven key messages

The transition to net-zero will not be sustainable or credible if it creates or worsens social inequalities. A social justice approach can facilitate the transition globally.

Costs and benefits of climate policies and the ability to shape such policy is not extended equally to those who suffer the greatest costs. Inclusion is vital to ensure that policy is socially equitable.

Job creation does not guarantee just outcomes. It must take into account what jobs are created, how secure they are, who has access to them and the skills and education required.

Just transitions will look very different in developing countries. They will need additional support to develop, plan and implement the necessary policies.

A backlash is likely if the transition is not perceived to be just. Policymakers need to encourage widespread public debate and involvement to ensure that everyone gets on board.

A range of policy tools exist to address just transition concerns. These include taking a holistic approach to policies; addressing social and environmental aspects of economic policy; making sure that interventions are adapted to local contexts and are responsive to change; building democratic engagement platforms, such as citizen assemblies; and open and transparent communication on the political and ethical choices involved in decarbonisation.

Governments should also incorporate just transition provisions into their nationally determined contributions (national targets to meeting the Paris Agreement goals) and include opportunities to review progress and learn from one another.

What needs to be done

Without a robust bedrock of public support, radical measures will prove difficult to implement. The early part of lockdown showed that collective responsibility is possible and that solidarity can be generated as long as it is not undermined by those in charge.

Shoring up badly eroded trust in public authority at local, national and global levels is vital. Basic democratic principles suggest that including a range of voices in making policy means more diverse concerns are reflected.

Besides individuals making changes, it’s clear that business and investors have a key role to play in achieving net-zero.

Although painfully slow, there are signs that fossil fuel companies are changing their strategies. Key investors are beginning to move out of fossil fuels following a sea change among high-profile industry leaders such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brunel pension fund, which both withdrew investments in fossil fuels.

There is a long way to go. But changes in the way that energy futures (financial instruments in which the underlying asset is based on energy products such as oil, natural gas, and electricity) are defined – according to speed of transformation to net zero rather than by rate of economic growth – show that major industrial narratives are changing.

It will also be vital that businesses account for their potential impact on social inclusion and inequalities, an agenda which is gaining ground in the influential voluntary environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards.

We know that only unprecedented levels of collective action will be enough to limit global warming to 2°C. Decarbonisation of the economy is daunting but essential. Emphasis on a fair transition to net-zero could rally public support for the dramatic changes to come, promote social solidarity and mobilise communities to take action.

As our COP briefing details, there already exists a broad set of policy tools and strategies to move us quickly in the direction of an integrated, whole-economy approach to an inclusive, just transition. Policymakers must prioritise measures that promote social and environmental justice, strengthening the political trust on which achieving our net-zero goal depends.

Photo Credit – Pixabay


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