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A recipe for a just transition

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By Alexandra Peek

· 6 min read

This is a recipe for how to counter the climate crisis by moving towards a net-zero society in an equitable way. 

This recipe is made up of three ingredients, inspired by the top issues discussed at COP28, such as the role of the private sector, decarbonization, and accountability. The ingredients consist of:

  1. the roots of climate change rather than the stems
  2. responsibility stock of the top-emitting actors/entities
  3. the essence of sustainability

1 cup of climate change roots

Energy (land, water, materials), goods, and service demands are fueling a very particular type of lifestyle. A cornerstone of this lifestyle is over-consumption. Excess consumption entails never being able to satisfy one’s needs (a sort of unquenchable thirst) no matter how much is consumed. Over-consumption is not only harmful for oneself, but also causes harm to others, the environment, and entire ecosystems by exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity. A popular misconception is that this is just a way of human nature, when in fact it’s only observed in a minority of the global population and can be traced from a specific time period that coincides with rising emissions. The symptoms of overconsumption include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased energy demands, which are needed to fuel excess consumption (goods and services). Elevated levels of energy lead to an increase in greenhouse gases (GHG), which affects weather and climate patterns. The former Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna’s opening comments on the Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions report states, “climate change and extreme weather are undermining health, food and water security, nature, safety, and socio-economic development”. Scientifically, this is undeniably true, but climate change and extreme weather are consequences of emissions from over-consumption that come at a severe cost in the myriad of ways she describes. 
  • A way to reduce over-consumption through the degrowth model. Proponents of the degrowth framework argue that in order to decarbonize, nations must apply a degrowth economic framework, where the measure of prosperity is not only GDP. The degrowth model is not without its faults, such as the lack of intersectionality. A more nuanced discussion of a degrowth model that includes the needs of the Global South and racially/ethnically and economically oppressed people in the Global North would strengthen its application and reach. For instance, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) make up a significant portion of GDP in developing economies, up to 40% of GDP and employing 50% of the global population.
  • Human rights violations & damage to the natural world are unavoidable. Increased energy demands require more use of cheap labor and cheap nature by the private sector and governments. The era of European (West) control of the world economy in the 15th century established a flow of cheap labor and resources from nations located in the Global South (Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean), also referred to as the ‘periphery’ to rich nations, or the ‘core’. This unequal distribution of wealth and resources still holds true today. This can be observed in global value chains, where the economic value of tangible resources and labor from the Global South is low while intangible production, like R&D in high GDP nations, is high. 
  • Cheap labor is a human rights violation; cheap nature means more environmental injustices to the natural world and communities. Therefore, the core has a significant role to play, which brings us to the next ingredient:

3 ½ cups of responsibility/accountability 

Core countries, aka the Global North, are responsible for mitigating the climate effects of overconsumption and production. To get even more precise, studies can now narrow down the relevant stakeholders. A common concern is that some of these entities play vital roles in the global economy and society, and removing them would create a global economic collapse, not unlike what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. To minimize this risk:

  • The We Mean Business Coalition, represented at COP28, that pushes for “bold policies” can include redistribution pathways that fit into their action calls. This includes the policy ask for “greater recognition and accountability of business climate commitments and actions”.
  • Scandinavian countries are an example of the power of re-distribution among a politically cohesive population. It affords them the ability to diffuse the impacts of an energy transition. For instance, Denmark’s conversion of their largest coal power station, Asnæs Power Station, into a biomass facility can now tap into bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Similarly, Norway’s publicly owned utilities by local municipalities set a distributive foundation for revenues in the adoption of emerging carbon management technologies such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
  • Localized ownership increases interest in the safety and success of the projects, which raises accountability for project developers and investors. Harms can be significantly minimized, and benefits maximized when all stakeholders have vested interests and therefore carry equal decision-making power. This can quicken the energy transition, but also slow it down to the essentials. Speaking of essentials, this leads to the final ingredient:

2 tablespoons of sustainability essence 

While core countries have an inherent responsibility to reduce GHG, the periphery nations and marginalized populations in rich nations must also subvert the power dynamic by owning their role as teachers and leaders of sustainable practices.

  • Countries located in the semi-periphery such as in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, are already leading the way by establishing the first Arabic Sustainability Campaign. It will be vital that discussions about the intersection of sustainability and decarbonization at COP28 include the ingredients mentioned above, root causes and responsibility, in order to prioritize policies and the inclusion of underrepresented nations. 

True sustainable practices entail redistribution of wealth, land and natural resources which can serve as an antidote to over-consumption and thus a direct measure to the climate crisis.

And there you have it, a recipe for understanding rising temperatures and global change. Follow this cookbook for similar recipes on climate, energy, and environmental-just pathways to a sustainable, and interconnected globe.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alexandra Peek is a Staff Associate at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Her research interests broadly cover the issues of climate inequality and inequity and what it means to create a justice transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Her previous research has largely focused on the political and social impacts renewable energy infrastructure and green markets have on local and indigenous populations in the Global South. Her research also expands on the correlation between climate injustice in the Global South and environmental racism taking place within the Global North.

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