The concept of “just transition” has so far arrived in Eastern and Southeastern Europe only as a fragment of nice environmental jargon. There is a lack of protagonists strong enough to create conditions for a more powerful social and political impact. In order to act within ecological limits and remain below a warming of 1.5° Celsius, we must also consume less. Until now, consumption, like growth, has been equated with well-being and prosperity.
Since both the radicality and hope around the concept of “sustainable development” have eroded and disappeared, if not fully capitulated, in recent years, we have learned about new ideas (or at least old ideas, but new buzzwords) in the context of current debates, theoretical or political disputes, and conflicts. The pluralist kaleidoscope of this new language embraces concepts of degrowth, the commons, climate justice, ecological transformation, ecological modernisation and just transition, often with competing or colliding hegemonial aspirations to deliver one-size-fits-all solutions (never admitted to). Yet, each of these adds new nuances of radical democracy or environmental justice to our comprehension of the current crisis. Indeed, these transformative narratives are supposed to be vibrant and mobilising ideas, instrumental in defining the framework and goals of collective political action for solving the climate crisis, where no one should be left behind. Still, if they fail to deliver, disappointments will be bitter and long-lasting. And future generations will not have as much patience to deal with this ignominious legacy. That is why we need to take them seriously and demand more from them, and certainly more than such ideas that are on offer now.
Just transition – one of the pathways or the final destination itself?
The concept of “just transition” has been introduced as an overarching framework to guide our transformation into green societies in a socially just and equitable way. With the development of this concept, labour unions and climate movements are bringing to the fore the need for systemic transformation. Just transition entails fundamental changes, not only in key production and consumption systems such as energy, transport, agriculture and food, but also infrastructure, societal values and politics. Moreover, it emphasises the need for a global shift towards a humane and fair economic system, with healthy ecosystems, healthcare, public service, education and culture at its heart.
Already for more than a decade, trade unions as the main protagonists of just transition have been describing it as a “tool for a fast and fair shift to a low carbon and climate resilient society”. They are demanding that “national plans on climate change […] include just transition measures with a centrality of decent work and quality jobs. The sectoral and economic transformation we face is on a scale and within a time frame faster than any in human history. There is a real potential for stranded workers and stranded communities. Transparent planning that includes just transition measures will prevent fear, opposition and inter-community and generational conflict. People need to see a future that allows them to understand that, notwithstanding the threats, there is both security and opportunity.”
As if the climate crisis were not a sufficiently difficult issue to address, just transition ambitions make the goals even more difficult to reach. Ensuring decent jobs, improving social security, providing equal opportunities and reducing inequalities are all ambitions now coupled with the goal of reducing global warming to under 1.5° Celsius and keeping economic activities within the ecological limits and at a low level of carbon intensity. With just transition, the terrain of coping with the complexity of climate change is intertwined with the demand to reduce social inequalities and job insecurity, both of which depend on fossil fuels or other extractive industries. The bar of expectation has, we can see, been moved significantly upwards.
With soaring rates of poverty and inequality worldwide, just transition will mean nothing without a fundamental reassessment of the global economic rationale and unjustifiable neoliberal and neocolonial regulations. It is crucial that we debate and plan for a more profound transition, one “that could transform the economic and political structures that reproduce and exacerbate inequalities and power asymmetries. Such a radical transition requires a redefinition of economic prosperity and social well-being. At its heart will be the creation of employment that promotes labour rights and improves working conditions while also encompassing gender and racial equality, democratic participation and social justice”. Again, with such high ambitions it is important to be aware of the risks of not being able to deliver any of the promises.
Just transition is often presented as one of the perspectives regarding how the ecological transition needs to be conducted, with a strong focus on the needs and interests of the workers, their working conditions, social protection and the labour issue in and of itself. Being “framed” as a transition, it requires time, which is conflicted with the urgency – and emergency – of the climate crisis. Ecologists often opt for urgency, whereas workers opt for incremental transition. However, if we were to aim to transcend this detrimental conflict between nature and labour, the transition could be interpreted as the final destination itself, as the ultimate completion of the task and transformation of a certain industry into an economic activity that operates within the ecological limits. This remains to be seen.
Contradictions such as time, growth…
Indeed, debating and planning is important, but so is implementing these measures. After the failure of COP 26 in Glasgow, only “immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source” can count as sufficient action to solve the climate crisis.
This is by no means an easy task. The climate emergency, which requires immediate and deep systemic measures, is placed in the same box as the need to ensure gradual transition for workers in affected industries so they aren't left behind. Since the 1970s and the Club of Rome, humanity has been warned that growth cannot be infinite and that the planet has boundaries; therefore, any action to limit “business as usual” cannot afford to be merely quick; it has to be immediate! Half a century has been sufficient for research and planning.
While politically we can agree that the green transition has to be fair and equal, at the same time this temporal contradiction is a difficult factor to handle within the very project of just transition. Transition needs time, as it is incremental and it requires adaptation. Transition is celebrating the process dimension, while climate urgency does not allow for this luxury. The time for process has gone, and now it's time to act. This tension requires resolution if the protagonists of just transition are to succeed in proving that it is more than a vague buzzword in the linguistic universe of climate change.
Another tension, no less sensitive, is growth. Our economies and industries need to operate within the 1.5° Celsius framework. That means that companies and economies will not be able to continue to grow as they have so far. They will need to recalibrate their successes to other values and measurements, thus abandoning growth curves as the benchmark of their success. As their productivity will be impacted, so too will consumption patterns, which will have to be significantly downscaled. Operating within ecological limits and under 1.5° Celsius, we also need to consume less. So far, consumption has been held as equivalent to well-being and prosperity, as was growth.
Until just recently, the protagonists of just transition were still claiming that “just transition towards a low carbon economy is possible, and can make climate action a driver for sustainable economic growth”. That is why the protagonists of just transition, primarily trade unions, are facing a huge challenge – how to integrate degrowth and reduced consumption in their balance sheets of just transition. Just transition can indeed offer a different trajectory for many industries and economies, which will be exposed to severe reductions of their CO2 emissions.
Just transition on the European semi-periphery
However, such scenarios have not yet even been elaborated upon at the EU level, in schemes like the European Green Deal, which still suffer from the lack of recognition of “growth” as the elephant in the room, or just transition as one of the most important perspectives compatible with European Green Deal objectives. Mere reduction of the European Green Deal to policy-driven techno-optimism and redirection of financial flows to clean(er) energy is still not delivering anything substantial concerning social inequalities, social protection or decent jobs.
On the other hand, on the European semi-periphery, particularly in Eastern or Southeastern Europe, the notion of “transition” tends to be irritating. First and foremost, it triggers memories of the failures regarding the 30-year-long transition to market economy and democracy, representing not only severe financial crisis, austerity measures and the downfall of the European democratic development, but also the ascent of the far right, the comeback of authoritarianism and further shrinking of democratic space. This transition was supposed to bring back the “golden days” of prosperity and peace, but did not. Secondly, in this part of Europe, where climate change is not taken seriously enough by decision makers, where coal or nuclear phase-outs are constantly postponed, and where the overall industrial sector has been devastated, the notion of just transition does not resonate with the idea of hope. This has to change if we are to take just transition seriously.
What is the specific context in which just transition takes place? First of all, it arrives in the context of a society that is completely hypnotised by the idea of growth; more specifically, an indefinite growth that will “bring us closer to well-being and prosperity”. In many cases, trade unions share this perspective, without major doubts. Secondly, most of the few industries that have managed to survive, are fossil fuel-intensive industries. On the other hand, industries or sectors where a major shift could be made toward decarbonisation (like modernising the railways) are often at risk of privatisation or “captured’” by clientelist or political party networks. In these cases, public resources are heavily abused or misused to serve other interests, and therefore there is no real political power behind advocacy for change.
Just transition in this part of Europe would predominantly be related to the energy sector, where it would include transition to renewable energy, whether publicly or citizen-owned. It would require huge investments in public infrastructure – in energy, water, transport and waste – and increased civic control over these governance regimes, thus ensuring the prioritisation of workers’ rights and social protection. Last, but not least, economic industrial activities would need to be planned and executed within the 1.5° Celsius limit. Workers engaged in fossil fuel or other carbon-intensive industries would have to be supported, particularly in regions and municipalities that predominantly depend on this industry. Also, business and new initiatives that aim to be based on low carbon or zero carbon intensity would have to be supported, as supplementary employers for some of the workers.
Just transition has so far arrived in the region only as a fragment of nice environmental jargon. It lacks protagonists strong enough to create conditions for gaining social and political power. It also lacks concrete scenarios for specific industries to be transformed or adapted in the specific time framework. These two are preconditions for just transition to be more than a vague concept, and more than just another transition.
And we all lack time…
This text has also been published in Perspectives Southeastern Europe #10: Green transition and social (in)justice