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Transition to post-carbon economy must be inclusive

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Press release issued: 5 October 2020

The transition to net-zero cannot be sustainable if it creates or exacerbates social inequalities, warns a group of academic experts from the COP26 Universities Network, a group of more than 45 UK-based universities.

In a new policy briefing, the authors emphasize that the impacts of climate change and the policy measures implemented to mitigate them, vary greatly depending on place, time and social contexts. 

The authors stress the importance of policy being developed in partnership with communities, to help ensure that the costs and benefits of ambitious climate action are shared in a fair and equitable way. 

Academics at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment are co-lead authors of the briefing. 

Dr Ed Atkins (Lecturer in Geographical Sciences) said, “Addressing climate change means a huge societal shift. However, this shift to a low-carbon world is likely to worsen current social inequalities. The huge economic disruption caused by Covid-19 has shown us that risks and benefits are not experienced equally. To be successful, any vision of a sustainable future must learn this lesson and ensure that decarbonisation strategies are both environmentally good and socially inclusive and just.” 

Dr Alix Dietzel (Lecturer in Global Ethics) said, “Climate change is fundamentally an issue of justice - the only way to address it is to see it as such. Understanding what a just transition looks like is a key part of a just response to climate change. Our policy brief puts into words what exactly such a transition entails.” 

The paper identifies five “blind spots” in the current debate around decarbonisation: 

  • Job creation per se does not deliver ‘just’ outcomes; the types of jobs, what they pay, and how secure they are matters 
  • The effects of climate change and related policy responses will be experienced differently; effects are felt differently across genders, ethnicities, class and age, as well as geography 
  • A just transition will look very different in a developing country context; additional support is needed for developing countries, whose growth and employment rates remain closely linked with carbon emissions 
  • Social backlash is likely if the transition is not perceived to be just; stakeholder voices need to be heard in discussion and decision making, creating ‘policy shapers’ rather than passive ‘policy takers’ 
  • Businesses and investors can help mitigate negative social impacts of the transition; public and private- sector firms will be key partners in implementing socially inclusive decarbonisation policies. 

Whilst the group emphasise that there is there is no ‘silver bullet’ approach to delivering a just transition to net zero, they identify a number of tools for policymakers to meet targets whilst also upholding social justice. These include shifts in energy production and distribution patterns towards more local, community-led energy initiatives, a greater focus on democratic engagement platforms, such as Citizen Assemblies, and independent / interdisciplinary research across climate, energy and environmental justice to inform effective policy, as well as the establishment of independent advisory bodies.  

Professor Simone Abram (University of Durham), co-lead author on the briefing, said: “During the pandemic, emergency policies have given us a glimpse of how clean air and a drop in traffic congestion can improve everyone’s quality of life, but the uneven access to services and inequalities in employment have revealed how differently climate and economic impacts are experienced. We are seeing a collapse in certain industries, such as aviation, while the benefits of remote, low-carbon working go primarily to already advantaged groups. 

“Future decarbonisation might be expensive in the short term for manufacturing industries and transport services, even if the longer-term benefits are enormous, so now is the time to rethink our goals. Given the scale and urgency of the changes we need, we have to stay focused on the need to ensure that the benefits of the transition to a low carbon economy can be shared by all.” 

The briefing paper is the second by the COP26 Universities Network to be published ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021. Established in 2020, the Network aims to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to help deliver ambitious climate change outcomes. 

Further information

COP26 Universities Network Briefing 

Abram, S., Atkins, E., Dietzel, A., Hammond, M., Jenkins, K., Kiamba, L., Kirshner, J., Kreienkamp, J., Pegram, T. and Vining, B. (2020). Just Transition: Pathways to Socially Inclusive Decarbonisation. COP26 Universities Network Briefing. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/just-transition-pathways-socially-inclusive-decarbonisation  

About the COP26 Universities Network 

The COP26 Universities Network is a growing group of more than 40 UK-based universities working together to help deliver an ambitious outcome at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow and beyond. The network aims to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for COP26 for the UK government, NGOs and the international community. It demonstrates and activates the role of UK universities and world-leading science and research in contributing to a net-zero emissions and resilient future. 

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