Published on: 5 December 2023
With COP28 focussing today on a Just Transition, the Cabot Institute for the Environment's Annual Lecture this year was incredibly timely. We had the chance to hear Chris Stark, CEO of the Climate Change Committee, delve into the realities of just transitions and the gargantuan task of saving our world. What's more, I shared a panel with Chris, Gnisha Bevan of the Black Seeds Network, Dr Ed Atkins, the energy transitions expert from Bristol University, all brilliantly chaired by Bristol University’s Dr Alix Dietzel, a top mind in Climate Justice. It was my last formal performance as outgoing President of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, and as such, incredibly relevant to businesses struggling to see their way to net zero.
Chris, equipped with an impressive set of slides, didn't just lay out the problems and prospects; he kindled a sense of hope, which was genuinely infectious.
One point that resonated with me was his take on the term “Just Transition”. Frankly, it's a bit unsettling. For me, it inadvertently points to the “unjust”, sparking worries of exclusion. It misses the mark on the ambition, the sheer potential of this stage in our journey. “Fair Transition” seems a more fitting descriptor, honestly, and it still doesn’t do justice to what is effectively an evolution of humanity into something… amazing.
When the Q&A rolled around, the queries were anything but light:
What's the key move for businesses to back the environment?
The answer's clear to me (impending pun intended): embedding transparency into their core business strategy. And no, I don’t mean a nod to clever PR. It's about an authentic reveal, a willingness to share the inner workings so that those on the outside can check their veracity using independent sources. This encompasses everything from governance and board diversity to fair wages, prompt supplier payments, sustainable sourcing, and meaningful partnerships.
I'm deeply invested in this, through my endeavours with tiscreport.org and projectvana.org. It's about building a robust data infrastructure that promotes corporate honesty and fosters interconnectedness, which is crucial for any sustainable action.
But there was a question left hanging that's pretty critical and whilst we ran out of time on the night I wanted to address it here:
Should we brace for a green future that's economically tighter?
Here's the elephant in the room: avoiding a green shift is already costing the most vulnerable workers. You can't uncouple social justice from environmental justice; they're intertwined. Green investment is about recalibrating the scales. There might be short-term discomfort, but if we consciously distribute the burden equitably, the long-term outlook is promising. With everything from sustainable sourcing to breakthrough technologies, there's plenty of room for optimism. We wouldn't be plugging away if there wasn't a future worth fighting for, right? This is particularly true if we step up the adoption and enforcement of policies grounded in solid evidence.
How do we advance climate initiatives when national policymakers are dragging their feet?
It boils down to localised efforts, city-by-city, grassroots and corporate activism, and a relentless push for evidence-based policy. It won’t be governments that deliver net zero. Our cities will, with the right leadership and support from civil society. That means us joining community groups focusing on collective action for key challenges.
For those at the career starting line, pondering how to align their trajectory with these goals?
Every employer is navigating these green waters. Find the person at the helm of that transition and get stuck in. Use those interviews to ask the hard questions. Given the current job market, job seekers have more influence than they’ve ever had. And don’t wait around – seize volunteer opportunities. Put your values into action today.
Focusing on Bristol, what should be at the forefront in a fair transition?
It's recognising the hurdles our most vulnerable citizens face. We're talking economic fairness, housing, and understanding that those struggling financially can't always prioritise sustainable choices. This extends to everyone, especially the workforce. Regular folks can make a difference by joining community action groups, and consistently questioning politicians, employers, and the businesses they patronise. Equity in action not only empowers your workforce but also fortifies your community. It's about grasping the challenges your workforce endures, from affordable childcare and housing to food security. Understanding leads to action, and action leads to change.
And what was left unanswered?
With over 600 attendees in the audience, far more questions came in for the panel than we could have covered that night. It’s worth summarising key themes because they capture the state of our collective consciousness (and conscience) that evening:
Role of Arts and Education: Questions highlighted the contribution of arts, humanities, and educational institutions in advocating a just transition. This encompasses their capacity to democratise spaces for inclusive dialogue and action, and their influence on the transition trajectory.
Inclusivity and Equity: There was a pronounced emphasis on the necessity for inclusivity and equity in decision-making processes. Concerns are voiced about the underrepresentation of specific demographics, such as Black and working-class citizens, in formulating the agenda for a just transition. Some also touch upon the need for fairness in the transition, mindful of the historical exploitation of fossil fuels by now-developed countries.
Community and Individual Engagement: Attendees exhibited interest in the avenues through which ordinary citizens, students, and communities can participate in the transition process, be it through direct action, sparking discussions, or other forms of involvement.
Institutional Responsibility and Action: Enquiries pinpointed the obligations of various institutions (educational, governmental, financial, etc.) in guaranteeing a just transition. This included their present shortcomings and potential measures they could adopt to bolster the process.
Global Justice and International Collaboration: Focus was placed on ensuring a just transition that is globally inclusive, particularly concerning justice for the global south, circumventing neocolonial structures, and safeguarding that developing and island nations are not marginalised.
Economic Considerations: Attendees broach concerns regarding the economic facets of the transition, including the role of international finance, the repercussions on developing countries dependent on fossil fuels, and the compatibility of a green future with economic growth.
Policy and Political Will: Several questions tackled the absence of support or initiative from national policy and political leaders and explored methods to persuade or obligate governments and influential leaders to undertake urgent action.
Practical Implementation and Localised Actions: Queries were directed at specific actions, lessons, and opportunities for high-impact transformation at both local (like Bristol) and institutional levels, and how these can materialise into practical implementation.
Behavioural Change and Public Perception: Questions denoted an interest in how to instigate behavioural change amongst the public and how to manage potential tensions between indispensable developments (like renewable energy infrastructure) and public acceptance or benefit.
Transdisciplinary Approaches and Research Contribution: There was curiosity about how different fields can collaborate, how research could contribute to high-impact transformations and the role of transdisciplinary approaches in discussions and actions on just transitions.
Environmental Justice and Greenwashing: Concerns were raised about the authenticity of political discourse on climate change, the phenomenon of greenwashing, and the imperative for genuine environmental justice.
Urgency and Future Visioning: Attendees understandably conveyed urgency for action, reflecting on the potential consequences of procrastinated measures and enquiring about hopes and fears for the future.
Unsurprisingly, what comes through loudly is a desire for a comprehensive, equitable, and inclusive approach to the climate transition, one that contemplates social justice, economic fairness, global collaboration, local community engagement, and urgent, meaningful action at all levels of society and governance.
So what next?
Action, that’s what. It’s my blog post so I’m going with a repeat of my call to action. Embed transparency into all the organisations you have influence in. It *should* be a no-brainer. Trust, accountability and sustainable action will follow, I promise. You can start by seeing some of what your organisation is sharing publicly on your websites on tiscreport.org.