Just Transition: eco-modernising or system change?

The last few years have witnessed a growing number of calls and actions around the world urging leaders and investors to engage into the path of energy transition, to save the world from further diving into the wells of climate catastrophe. Moreover, those voices are calling not for transition that will open ways for new waves of capital accumulation by a small capitalist majority, but above all a transition that will be effective and just. Nevertheless, it should be recalled that, in the current climate-changing context, the concept of Just Transition generally refers to taking into consideration workers, their jobs, their livelihoods and their communities during the transition to a low-carbon or better still a post-carbon society.

In the spirit of the Just Transition socio-political project, three conditions among others are keys for the fulfilment of the project.

– Employees representation, participation and involvement in the decision-making process throughout the production cycle (pre-production, production and management of products and benefits).

– Stability of employment, health and security at work. Here what is important is not only the access to the job market, but also and above all the maintaining of workers in the job market and the proper preparation of those who will lose their jobs during the transition, to be reconverted to new and fulfilling jobs.

– Government backing. It should be mentioned that following this perspective, governments have to invest in projects coming from labour and for the benefits of workers and their communities, rather than investing in projects coming from the capital that serve for capital accumulation for a small majority.

– Social justice and fair redistribution of environmental costs and benefits. In other words, mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that workers and their communities should not continue to bear the heaviest part of the environmental burden. Equally, redistribution policies should be put in place to make sure they equally take advantage of the benefits coming from environmental protection, adaptation or mitigation efforts.

Even though Just Transition appears to be a united project from the onset, it is nevertheless important to mention that it is generally faced with an important internal divide between two main currents: The eco-modernizers and the system-changers.

The eco-modernizers perspective defends some sort of soft version of transition to a post-carbon economy. Following its defenders, just transition does not require a deep de-carbonization of the society, but simply some sort of green deal based on the development of mechanisms (social, political, scientific and technological) that will help control the effect of environmental crises on socio-human and economic systems.

This pragmatic approach appears more workers-oriented and places its first emphasis on the protection of their jobs within some sort of green capitalism model whereby by biomimicry and other techno-fixes, the current capitalist model can secure its ideals of continuous economic growth while guaranteeing “nature protection”. This vision is based on the belief that, even though the current environmental/climate crises are to a significant extent the result of an uncontrollable exploitation of natural resources and the extended use of fossil fuel, they (those crises) can be solved through extended usage of natural resources supported by hypothetical technological solutions with uncertain future outcomes and consequences. Not all the defenders of Just Transition nevertheless accept this vision.

The system changer perspective refers to the radical version, and is based on the assumption that there is no possible change to a post-carbon society within the current capitalist model, be they reformed or not.

For system changers, speaking of Just Transition to a post-carbon society literally equals to speaking of transition to a post-capitalist society. Green economy, for them, is nothing more than an attempt by the capital and neoliberal market forces to jeopardize the chances of the real transition and to turn any possibility of ecological transition into a new form of capital accumulation. In other words, green economy is nothing more than what can be termed green capitalism, where the boss will still be the capitalist and the victims will continue to be the highly exploited and alienated working class, and nature itself. Therefore convinced that a green boss is still a boss and that the green economy is just a rebranded neo-liberal capitalist approach disguised with the hypothetic green virtual label, this approach to Just Transition advocate a completely new socio-political model that will be developed completely away from the current capitalist models.

In conclusion, we can say that, even though it is currently gaining considerable ground not only in the scientific, but also and above all, in the social and political realm, Just Transition is nevertheless neither a uniform concept nor a united project yet.

Even though such limitations cannot jeopardize the success of such a socio-political project that is rendered visible through the development and implementation of a number of Just Transition projects around the world, it is nevertheless important to stress that, to be more effective, efficient and truly global, this project will need to rethink its trajectory and strategies.

Chrislain-Eric Kenfack holds a PhD from the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Photo by Berber Verpoest

Originally Published on May 23, 2018 on just-transition.info

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