A good transition is a fair transition

Publication Date: 

Sunday, 14 August 2011 - 7:14pm


Victor Anderson - WWF
A good transition is a fair transition

A good transition to a green economy doesn't only mean that the transition needs to be effective and reasonably fast. It also means it is carried out as fairly as possible, and that means protecting the positions of those, who are used to being on the receiving end of change rather than helping create it.

All economic transitions have their costs and casualties. Technologies and patterns of demand and cost shift, and some people lose out. However it is characteristic of a society which aims to be fair that there is help for people to find a way through periods of change.

In putting in place the right policies for the good green transition, we therefore have to consider areas such as training and retraining, unemployment benefits, perhaps help with moving house, the sorts of things which make it easier for people to leave one job and shift to another in any form of economic transition.

Within an existing firm or workplace, transition is going to involve a change in people's jobs or in the details of how they are done. In this context, information about what is proposed, consultation, trade union representation, and avoiding an over-bureaucratic approach to management are important.

In Spain, unions, government and business established joint arrangements to negotiate about the economic challenges created by the shift to a lower-carbon economy. In France and parts of Germany, social dialogue has been used to develop plans to create thousands of new 'green jobs'. Trade unions in the UK and internationally have talked about trade union involvement in shaping 'A Just Transition'.

As many ecological issues are global in scale, similar questions to those trade unions have been familiar with for well over a century arise worldwide, because again on a world scale, economic change generally means winners and losers. Many in the global South see proposals to limit carbon emissions, for example, as essentially proposals to limit their economic development and living standards. Arrangements to raise environmental standards in products traded internationally can be seen as 'green protectionism', stopping poorer countries from using lower and cheaper standards as one of the advantages they have in price competition.

A just transition internationally can, however, draw on a wealth of ideas about fairness and redistribution which have been developed over recent decades.

For example in any system of equal per capita rights to carbon emissions, the richer countries would find themselves well over their allocations and the poorest countries well below. Therefore any system of paying for extra permits, or trading in permits, is going to redistribute wealth.

In most systems of payments for the services provided by ecosystems, most of the payments will go from richer countries, the ones making the most use of ecosystems, generally to tropical countries, which tend to be those with richer biodiversity and ecosystems, and also tend to be middle-income or poor.

Arrangements for company reporting, codes of conduct, accountability, etc, established largely for environmental reasons, create structures which can also be used for social, redistributive, and human rights purposes. This is one of the reasons, of course, why less responsible companies oppose such measures.

Similarly, the renegotiation of governance arrangements for the big economic institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, in order to get an environmental input to their decision-making, perhaps by putting United Nations Environment Programme representatives on their governing bodies, can also be used to open up the question of the inequitable patterns of power in those institutions as regards countries at different income levels.

The advanced facilities and funding for research and development in rich countries can be used to benefit middle-income and poorer countries when innovations in technology are disseminated.

These are complex issues, of course, but the main point is clear: if the world economy is to shift and be redesigned, that process opens up many opportunities to make gains not only for environmental sustainability, but also for social justice.

This article was also published in the Guardian online