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Lessons learnt and guiding principles for a just energy transition in the Global South

By Thomas Hirsch

Photo:Isofoton via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY 3.0)

This post originally appeared on Just Transition(s), which is published by the Just Transition Research Collaborative in partnership with the ISSC. 

The Just Transition discourse has its origin in the struggle of North American trade unions for programmes supporting workers who lost their jobs as a result of environmental protection policies in the 1970s and 1980s. Later, at the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, Just Transition was brought to the global level and linked with the sustainable development agenda. Mainly due to the efforts of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), it was then also introduced into climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and ultimately anchored in the preamble to the Paris Agreement, thereby ensuring recognition for the legitimate interests of workers and communities exposed to restructuring and job losses in the process of transition to a low-carbon economy.

However, the justice discourse around climate change is much broader. A huge variety of groups claim justice for those most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, justice in how the burdens and opportunities of the energy transition are shared, and justice towards nature and for future generations. These justice claims are partially overlapping. They relate to different domains of justice, i.e. structural, distributive and participatory justice. There is considerable coherence among different claim-holders for justice on underlying values, for instance “leave no one behind” or “rights-based”, but their Just Transition narratives and policy demands vary. The shared value base could serve as a starting point to build up alliances, a necessary step in order to achieve a Just Transition for everyone. The ongoing socio-ecological project of the German “Energiewende”, which started in the 1980s, may serve as an illustrative example.

In order to preserve a chance of remaining below 2°C, or ideally below 1.5°C, of global warming, it is imperative that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should peak, plateau and begin to decline by 2020, starting with the energy sector, where fast achievements are easiest. Without ambitious climate action, it will be impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), thereby inflicting even more injustice on people, especially in developing countries.

Acknowledging that circumstances differ from country to country, a one-size-fits-all just energy transition approach will not work. However, building on our research results for the study “Guiding Principles and Lessons Learnt for a Just Energy Transition in the Global South”, we came to the conclusion that a set of principles could be developed to serve as a reference framework for a just energy transition. They are designed to make justice applicable to energy transition processes in developing countries, which go beyond an abstract call for justice. They cover the climate, socioeconomic and political dimensions of the transition in a balanced way that reflects the legitimate justice claims of a wide range of stakeholders, thereby encouraging them to join forces for a just energy transition. Each of our eight principles is associated with a set of indicators. Through a points system, each country is given a score based on its compliance with these indicators, thereby enabling us to comparatively assess countries’ levels of justice in the energy transition. However, while we were able to develop a set of universal principles, it was more challenging to come up with a set of indicators that was relevant and adapted to different national contexts. This was further complicated by the variations in quality and availability of data for each country. We therefore stress that our approach should be seen as a first attempt to set up a just energy transition reference framework, and that further efforts will be needed to improve it.

We applied our reference framework to assess energy transitions in twelve countries of the Global South. Their respective scores show that justice concerns are gaining traction in the energy transition and that different countries adopt different approaches to justice. The scoring results indicate that most countries perform relatively better with regard to climate ambition, while they do less well when it comes to addressing the socio-economic justice concerns of the transition. The biggest justice gaps were identified with regard to its political dimension, i.e. in terms of participation, good governance and human rights.

Just Energy Transition and Sustainable Development Scorecard
Just Energy Transition and Sustainable Development Scorecard. Source: “Guiding Principles and Lessons Learnt for a Just Energy Transition in the Global South”

Altogether, there remains a great deal of room for improvement to make the energy transition just. However, looking at the frontrunners, especially Costa Rica, may help to learn from each other. Building on the lessons learnt from our study, we advance the following recommendations:

Thomas Hirsch (@Th_Hirsch) is the Founding Director of Climate & Development Advice, an international consultancy network specialized in climate and development policies. This story is based on the report “Guiding Principles & Lessons Learnt for a Just Energy Transition in the Global South” which was published in 2017 by Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and Bread for the World and co-edited by Thomas Hirsch, Manuela Matthess and Joachim Fünfgelt.

This piece was originally posted on Just Transition(s).


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