How Just is the Just Transition?

How Just is the Just Transition?

This blog reflects a community impact view, illustrated by the ongoing transition in Ireland.

Dr. Aparajita Banerjee, Postdoctoral Researcher with NexSys and Assoc. Prof. Geertje Schuitema, Funded Investigator with NexSys and academic in the UCD College of Business, reflecting on their research on Just Transition. This research included a lot of interaction with local communities impacted by the ongoing transition in the Irish Midlands.

The energy transition has impacts on communities as well as on power systems. 

Energy transition implies many changes: fewer fossil fuels, more renewable energy, and infrastructural changes for energy production, transmission, and storage.

All these changes impact our society and have real implications for people, communities, and organizations. This benefits many, for example in the form of having a reliable energy supply, new business opportunities from new energy projects, or improved wellbeing.

However, as with all changes, there are also “losers”. Reducing fossil fuel used in energy production through phasing out subsidies, divestments, moratoria, bans, and litigations can affect the lives of people who have worked, lived, and raised their families depending on fossil fuel ancillary enterprises.

 

This results in the loss of jobs and livelihoods, changes in working conditions, skill obsolescence, and the ability to acquire future employment in a changing economy.In fact, some communities that were thriving in the carbon industry may be negatively impacted when entire industries disappear.

 

To ensure that the “losers” of the energy transition are not disproportionally affected by the energy transition, world leaders reaffirmed their commitments that climate change actions should synchronize with eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities, and achieving sustainable development.

 

This commitment is referred to as the “Just Transition”. Social justice, respect for human rights and protection of livelihoods provide the normative core to a just transition vision whereas rehabilitating workers, communities and regions affected by the closure of fossil fuel industries is roughly translated as just transition practice.

 

Given this, public funds are made available to achieve this, for example, by the European Union which recently created the Just Transition Fund as a new instrument of the region-wide Cohesion Policy 2021-2027 to support territories most affected by low carbon energy transition.

 

A Just Transition requires recognizing that workers’ rights and livelihoods are affected and that communities embedded in fossil fuel extraction regions may suffer heavily from job loss and reduced disposable income. Hence, the focus of a Just Transition is on rehabilitating workers and creating transformative social, economic, and environmental changes.

 

However, the question is, “How just is the execution of a Just Transition in the eyes of those for whom it was designed?” To illustrate this, we elaborate on an Irish example: The Just Transition in the Irish Midlands, where recently the end of peat-based electricity production was announced.

 

The end of peat: uncertain future and promises of a Just Transition

At the end of 2019, it was decided that the last two peat-fired power plants in the Irish Midlands would be closed by the end of 2020. The closure of the power plants, and the reduction of demand for peat, affect around 4000 jobs in one of the country’s poorest regions, resulting in an uncertain future for the workers, their families, and the communities.

 

Recognizing the imminent socioeconomic impacts of the closure, the Government of Ireland constituted a Just Transition Fund to support the region. We conducted semi-structured interviews and a community-wide survey to investigate how the workers and local communities perceived the peat industry’s imminent closure and how a Just Transition plan could benefit them. We focused on those involved with the Lough Ree Power Station in Lanesborough.

 

Results show very little local support for the sudden closure of the Lough Ree Power Station that used peat fuel (Figure 1). Furthermore, although participants were concerned about climate change and Ireland’s commitment to emission reduction, they believed more proper planning is required to minimize regional impacts like job loss associated with decarbonizing the energy industry.

 

Source: Medugorac, V., Banerjee, A., & Schuitema, G. (2020). Ireland’s Just Transition – A report on the perceptions of impacted communities in Ireland. Available at: https://www.esipp.ie/post/irelands-just-transition-a-report-on-the-perceptions-of-impacted-communities-in-ireland.

 

Reskilling and upskilling programs were provided by the company, yet workers believed that these programmes often missed the point. For example, they offered skills training for skills they already had, or the new skills did not match locally available jobs. The in-person training programmes were also suspended during the pandemic and the workers were surviving on social welfare and their severance pays.

 

Facing an uncertain future, many planned to either commute to bigger cities daily for work or migrate to other regions. Such an increase in daily commute would increase local emissions and erode social contracts, leading to a feeling of reduced quality of life. Some feared the entire region would change into towns seen in a Western movie when the gold rush went out with dust and tumbleweeds everywhere and the doors falling off.’ [Interviewee 020].

 

Photo credit: Aparajita Banerjee

 

To avoid such a future, Ireland’s government allocated funds to the region to increase local employment opportunities through economic diversification. However, participants were apprehensive, as they reiterated the importance of engaging in social dialogue with the workers and the communities. Also, investments in the region would require years to rejuvenate local economies and there is no guarantee that those who lost their livelihoods would be benefitted by the government investments. Overall, they felt communities should be much more involved to ensure that investments would truly benefit the region. Instead, the Just Transition was often perceived as “paper talk”.

 

Quote from Interviewee 23

What’s happened since the implementation of Just Transition? Zero. And that’s the answer. That is the answer. Absolutely nothing, because it’s all paper talk. It’s all paper talk and it’s all answering the right questions. If someone asks you a question, and if you give them the right answer, people will go on happy with themselves. But the right answer might never materialise.

Photo credit: Aparajita Banerjee

 

How just is the Just Transition?

The Irish Midlands do not stand alone. There are many similar regions around the world where fossil fuel extraction will eventually come to an end. Think for instance about communities in Central Appalachian regions of the US, hard coal mining regions in Germany or Australia, or the petroleum production in Mexico.

Though governments may readily commit to the Just Transition programs, their execution can be poor, lacking knowledge of the needs of local people, communities, and businesses.

A Just Transition should include dialoguing with people in developing a sustainable future for them, covering a broad perspective.

The planning should start long before the actual closure of businesses. Local economic opportunities should be pre-emptively promoted so that an alternative economy that can help communities to sustain themselves is created.

Lack of such long-term and broad thinking can affect society’s support for the energy transition, jeopardizing the chances of creating a just and more sustainable world. Therefore it’s in the general interest to ensure that a Just Transition is just that.

 

Further Information

  • Recent journal publication in Energy Research & Social Science, 2022  “How just are just transition plans? Perceptions of decarbonisation and low-carbon energy transitions among peat workers in Ireland”, Aparajita Banerjee, Geertje Schuitema. -> 
  • Radio Interview: Dr. Banerjee is interviewed by Shannonside FM about her research in the Midlands on Just Transition ->
  • Link to Dr. Aparajita Banerjee academic profile ->
  • Link to Assoc. Prof. Geertje Shuitema academic profile ->