Just Transitions: a comparative perspective
Report prepared for the Just Transition Commission providing a comparison of just transitions in other countries.
Over recent years, accelerating climate crisis has prompted ever more urgent debate around the need to transition away from carbon-intensive energy systems, and an accompanying transformation in the political institutions and socio-economic practices that are entailed in them. Since the 1970s, and particularly in the last 10 years or so, the concept of just transitions has been gaining traction – first within the labour and environmental movements, and more recently in national and international policy circles – as a legal and political framework for addressing the effects of these transformations on workers and communities that depend on the fossil fuel industry.
However, increasingly, as the use of the term has expanded, ‘just transitions’ has been deployed to refer not simply to policies and activities designed to mitigate job losses within the fossil fuel sector, but also to broad-based structural changes aimed at fostering greater equity and social justice across all scales of society.
Background to the report
In April 2019, the newly formed Just Transition Commission, set up by the Scottish Government at the end of 2018, proposed the formulation of a research report to support its work. The remit for this report, as set out by the Commission in its original brief for the project, was twofold.
First, the report was to explore approaches to just transition that have been taken or are being developed in other nations or regions. These approaches were to be outlined, summarising the scope, methodology, their modes of fostering participation and engagement, timelines, perceived risks and benefits, and resultant policy outputs.
Second, it was to offer a literature review, examining evidence from government interventions seeking to manage or minimise the disruption to workers and communities caused by economic structural change, similar to that implied by the move to a carbon-neutral economy.
As per the first part of this brief, this report aims to consider – albeit to a limited degree – how far different countries have gone in terms of embedding the broad principles implied by ‘just transition’ in their plans, strategies, policies and activities.
In fulfilment of the second part of the brief, the examples it draws on are not limited to processes designed explicitly in terms of just transition. For example, many of the earlier activities undertaken to support economic diversification in the industrial region of the Ruhr valley, which is explored in the German case study discussed in the second section of the report, preceded the popularisation of ‘just transition’ as a policy process. However, the many references to the region in just transitions literature suggest that the actions implemented there have influenced the shape of just transitions thinking and policy-making not only in Germany (as evidenced through the work of the Coal Commission in the country), but also elsewhere.
The report also draws attention to other processes elsewhere in the world that have been concerned not with the transformation of industrialised economic practices and labour, but rather with other kinds of structural change, particularly around land use, tenure, and ownership in the context of carbon-emissions reduction efforts.
The report explores case studies of such varied processes at distinct stages of development in five different countries: Germany, Canada, the US, Peru and Norway. These case studies were selected on several grounds. Canada and Germany were chosen because they demonstrate some of the most well-developed policy frameworks relevant to just transitions – whether they have been explicitly elaborated using the language of just transition or, otherwise, are considered well-aligned with or foundational to just transition principles.
The US was selected because existing literature offers good comparative material on a range of state-, NGO- and federal-led processes in the country.
Given that just transition processes appear to be most well-developed in coal-producing regions and countries, and given the key role played by North Sea oil and gas in sustaining a substantial proportion of Scottish jobs and economic life, Norway was introduced in order to provide an example of how far just transition processes are being pursued in areas with well-established oil and gas industries.
The Peru case, meanwhile, offers an interesting example of a long-term, highly contested, and negotiated process (involving a wide range of state, NGO, multilateral, regional, local and indigenous actors) of developing – through concerted action and campaigning – some degree of social and economic justice for forest-dwelling and indigenous peoples in the context of the introduction of carbon credit schemes aimed at reducing deforestation. Peru is a good example of many developing countries whose primary source of emissions comes from land use, rather than fossil fuels, and the REDD+ program discussed in the case-study points to the kinds of international entanglements and interdependencies playing out in developing countries with respect to carbon emissions reduction. The case also offers insight into some of the ways that developing countries are handling land rights and conflicts over land-ownership in areas that are increasingly highly valued for their rich resources, such as forests. Such examples are of interest in Scotland, given its ongoing debates over land ownership, distribution, and use, as well as forestation.
It is important to note that the processes addressed in the report unfold at different scales. Some are state-led, whilst others have emerged at regional or local levels, through the impetus of regional, municipal or local government, or non-governmental organisations, or indeed a combination of both.
The report is structured as follows. Part One outlines the scope and background of just transitions, offering a discussion of the origins of ‘just transition’ as a movement and its integration into international discourses. It goes on to address some of the different existing understandings of just transition; current debates over who and what might be included (and excluded) within the scope of a just transition; and some of the principles associated with just transitions. It also maps out some of the key proposed approaches to implementing just transitions. Part Two lays out existing examples of just transition and socio-economic restructuring processes in the five different case study countries: the US, Canada, Germany, Peru and Norway. Part Three offers a brief conclusion that draws out some of the key findings from the case studies and reflects on their implications for wider understandings of and approaches to just transition, as outlined in Part One.
A note on the limits of this report
This report is not intended as a piece of primary, original research or a thoroughgoing analysis of how just transitions are addressed in each of the countries included as case studies. Due to the time constraints of the project, it aims instead to offer a brief literature review of existing policy and scholarly literatures, before going on to gather together some of the key policies and processes that incorporate the principles of just transition in each country. The conclusion then draws out potential lessons from these processes that might serve current transition-planning.
As a result of this approach, the report is richest where there is most available literature. This means that certain regions that it would have been interesting to explore in further detail are not addressed in this report (for example, transition processes in the Middle East). In relation to the case studies that were studied, it was occasionally difficult to locate up-to-date material on some of the policy processes, particularly with respect to Norway. In general, because there appear to be few policy processes, as yet, relating to oil and gas transitions, the material on this is more scant. It should also be noted that whilst the report addresses land issues with respect to tenure and carbon offset projects, it does not address just transitions with respect to agriculture.
Finally, it is important to note that this report was commissioned and carried out prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities, impacted heavily on the oil and gas sector, and generated significant debate around the need for a just, green recovery. However, due to the timing of this report’s writing, it has not been possible to take these developments and debates into account.
I would like to thank SEFARI Gateway for funding this project, the commissioners of the Just Transition Commission and the Just Transition Commission Secretariat for their support of this project. Thanks to Professor Jim Skea and Professor Lorna Dawson for their guidance and feedback on various report drafts. I would also like to thank Scott Herrett, Dr Liz Dinnie, Joshua Msika and Dr Keith Marshall for their inputs into the project over the course of the year.
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