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.
The group is made up of more than 45 UK universities, including the University of Leeds.
In a new policy briefing, the authors emphasise 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.
Dr Tom Pegram, co-lead author of the briefing from University College London, said: “The individuals, households and communities that stand to be most negatively affected by decarbonisation policies are often already losing out in existing socio-economic arrangements.
“With current pandemic policies disproportionately affecting low-skilled workers, minorities, women and other vulnerable groups, Covid-19 has served as a stark reminder that socio-economic disruptions tend to worsen existing social inequalities. We must not make the same mistake with decarbonisation policies, but ensure that we utilise the opportunity to steer societies towards both a more ecologically and socially inclusive path.”
Decarbonisation’s ‘blind spots’
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 discussions 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, co-lead author on the briefing from the University of Durham, 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.
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