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Road to climate justice

DELIVERING the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture 2020, Antonió Guterres, the UN secretary general, said that inequality defines our time. Because of globally growing extreme inequalities, the world system is at a breaking point. Covid-19 has exposed the world like an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of societies that we have built. It has also exposed our falsehoods. And this is why the world needs not just climate action, but also climate justice — based on a just transition.

The term ‘just transition’ is fast gaining currency in defining priorities for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It is expected to facilitate a transition from coal and fossil fuels to alternative sources of livelihood in non-extractive industries.

Initially, it was perhaps meant to ‘buy off’ trade unions and to pacify their resistance to the possible closure of their coal mines. But now the concept has begun to find deeper meaning that touches the heart of climate justice: it now stands for enabling the transition to the new climate economy (NCE) that can be built without ignoring the economic and social interests of the poor and marginalised.

It is envisioned that the NCE will attract $26 trillion in investments and create 65 million new jobs over business as usual by 2030 in five key economic systems: energy, cities, food and land-use, water, and industry. This will widen inequalities even further unless imbued with a commitment to just transition. The poor everywhere in the Global South — and not just the coal miners — have already become victims of climate change. The argument is that they should not be wronged again as societies transition to climate-smart economies.

Inspired by the South African trade unions, the argument was picked up first by the American labour movement and trade unions and then the coal-mining hubs in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. The term ‘just transition’ has been used to advocate standards of union engagement and outcomes when moving workers from one industry to another. It is now typically combined with the elements of equity, fairness, and environmental justice particularly in the context of climate change threats. The concept now stands for the rights of labour in industry, SMEs, the informal economy and agrarian communities around the world that are coping with threats to their livelihoods.

The European Union cannot expect to meet its net-zero emissions targets by 2050 without carrying the coal-producing rust-belt countries along. The EU has thus created a $44 billon Just Transition Fund to encourage them to leap forward to new economic sectors by retooling, reskilling and upskilling coal miners and boosting local economies. This is in addition to an EU-wide $825bn green stimulus package to support a) building efficiency, b) clean technology investment, c) low-carbon vehicles, and d) food and agricultural land. This will, in effect, weaken and neutralise opposition to the climate transition and make the EU more competitive in the global marketplace, while meeting the Paris Agreement.

In the Paris Agreement, a commitment is made to take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”. This commitment was further strengthened through a Just Transition Declaration at COP 24 in 2018, in Katowice, Poland. Several countries have since begun to incorporate the concept, tools and processes of ‘just transition’ in their development plans and particularly in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that provide road maps for their climate actions.

Concurrently, the need is growing to develop concrete tools and strategies, especially since the Paris Agreement and NDCs require countries to submit ambitiously revised targets and action plans before the 26th climate summit in Glasgow in 2021. In other words, the idea of a just transition is emerging as a necessary condition for effective climate action in climate negotiations.

Is a just transition relevant to Pakistan and other developing countries? How can we help broaden the contours of the debate by questioning its myopic Eurocentric preoccupation? Sneaked in the thick texts of the Paris Agreement, most developing country delegates underestimated its potential significance during negotiations. Thankfully, scores of think tanks like IIED, WRI, CSI, SEI and others have since then pushed the conceptual boundaries for it to include such concerns as land-use planning, ecosystem-based natural resource management, land degradation neutrality — concepts of immediate relevance to the Global South including Pakistan. The principle of shared but differentiated responsibility that had been diluted, if not buried over the years, is now being resuscitated as the basis for a just transition. There is an emerging realisation that without climate justice embedded in just transition, transformational change cannot take place.

The climate discourse has mostly been middle-class driven and its ideals have not shown sufficient sensitivity to climate justice and the hardships the NCE would entail for the poor. By way of example, Pakistan is making elaborate plans to introduce electronic vehicles. Why, instead of focusing on middle-class automobiles, can a just transition for rickshaw drivers not be prioritised, together with two-wheelers, and commercial transporters? Bottom line? Rethink and ensure that the transition to NCE does not further squeeze the poor.

Pakistan has announced an elaborate portfolio of climate actions that can still be meaningfully aligned with principles of a just transition. For a start, Pakistan can engage in this global conversation by embedding just transition and NCE concepts into the National Climate Change Policy and NDCs. At present, both documents are being revised and they can potentially show our national commitment to climate justice.

Second, Pakistan’s funding requests to Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Global Environment Facility and others can be based on the principles of just transition. For this, Pakistan will need to closely work with the accredited agencies or intermediary organisations who typically develop projects on Pakistan’s behalf. The World Bank managed Climate Investment Funds have already initiated operationalising the concept. Nothing would help mainstream climate change more effectively than a new social contract based on the ethos of a just transition.

email: atauqeersheikh@gmail.com

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, "Road to climate justice," Dawn. 2020-08-15.
Keywords: Environmental justice , Climate negotiations , Developing country , Local economies , Climate action , Paris agreement , Economic systems , Climate change , Electronic vehicles , Green Pakistan , NDCs , NCE