In mid-November of last year, a group of young protestors made headlines by occupying the offices of several members of the US Congress, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Their demand: the serious consideration of a radical program to decarbonize the US economy while simultaneously addressing social and economic inequality.
Their call was taken up by incoming US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a month later, they had the backing of 35 members of Congress. The Green New Deal had gone from nowhere to the most widely discussed policy proposal in the nation in the space of one month.
The concept of a Green New Deal is hardly new; various writers have been proposing a program along these lines and using this exact phrase to describe it for years. But what happened a year ago is that the idea of joining decarbonization to programs for social and economic empowerment became mainstream.
This concept draws on an even older idea: that the transition away from fossil fuels should be a just one and not replicate or even intensify existing inequality. As early as the 1990s, US trade unionists had encapsulated this call into the phrasing of a just transition. This is associated with the concept of climate justice, which is a framing of the climate crisis as an ethical and political issue instead of a purely environmental one.
But all of this leads to bigger questions. What is a just transition? And with so many different groups affected by both climate change and the energy transition, a just transition for whom?
Crisis in Coal
The Green New Deal followed another popular appeal in the United States: President Donald Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry. But pledges to protect coal are hardly limited to the United States. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party is seeking to keep the nation’s coal industry alive by building new mines and coal-fired power plants in stark contrast to EU decarbonization targets.
But it is unlikely that either President Trump or Law and Justice will be able to fulfill their promises. The crisis in the coal industry predates EU climate targets in Poland and Obama-era mercury regulations in the United States.
“It’s a matter of the economics of this business in Poland,” explains Izabela Zygmunt, the national campaigner for Poland at Bankwatch, a nongovernmental organization. “It’s crumbling anyway.”
Poland saw waves of mine closures in the 1990s as the economy transitioned after the fall of communism, a process that Zygmunt describes as “traumatic.” And in the first two decades of the 21st century, coal employment has continued on a slow downward spiral. As miners dig deeper and deeper for hard coal in the region of Silesia, the price of extraction goes up, production continues to decline, and imports from Russia rise.
Zygmunt says that this has affected safety and pay. “There is no miner in Silesia who wants his children to follow the same career,” she declares.
Ultimately, the Polish coal industry is not immune to larger trends. While coal generation is on the rise in the developing world, demand in rich nations is falling due to a combination of climate regulations and, in the United States, the economics of gas-fired generation. With global coal consumption down slightly since 2013, the most expensive and inefficient sources of coal are the first to suffer.
“The official narrative is that coal is going to survive, but the statistics don’t bear that out,” says Zygmunt. She says that instead what is needed is a formal schedule for the transition from coal to avoid the chaos that followed unpredictable mine closures in the 1990s. “We want a clear phaseout date so that everybody has a clear idea of what happens to their jobs, to their companies.”
“The official narrative is that coal is going to survive, but the statistics don’t bear that out.”
For Zygmunt, a just transition is not only characterized by predictability but also a democratic process. She says that the voices of coal workers are an important part of this. “In order for the miners to get on board with the transition, they have to be sure that they won’t be cheated again, that they won’t be lied to again, and that they won’t be treated as dispensable. You have to make them part of the transition, you have to listen to their concerns.”
And it is not only coal workers that Zygmunt says should be included. She argues that a just transition must include the communities where coal mines are located and people who are suffering environmental consequences. “It has to be a plan that is made through inclusive dialogue in Poland, everyone who would be affected by the aftermath of the transition.”
Zygmunt acknowledges that the vision of her organization is a long way from what is happening in Poland. But she emphasizes that such an approach is critical to getting the support of the constituencies that can make this happen—including coal miners. “It is no wonder that they prefer the status quo versus some vague promises of a transition that they aren’t a part of,” she explains.
But this is difficult to do when the government is in denial that the end of the industry is coming. “There is a clear economic case for doing this,” says Zygmunt. “And it is just a matter of political games that politicians like to play where you avoid difficult decisions.”
Trouble in the Caribbean
The problem of a just transition is hardly limited to coal miners, whether in Silesia or Kentucky. The severe weather incidents exacerbated by the climate crisis often hit less-developed nations harder, and these nations have fewer resources to deal with these events.
This issue has been widely recognized by international bodies for a decade or more. The 2011 Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established the Green Climate Fund, whereby wealthy nations agreed to support low-carbon and climate-resilient development in the developing world.
However, despite recent replenishment pledges to the fund, organizations such as Climate Action Network Europe have accused wealthy nations of shortchanging the Green Climate Fund and other resources for the developing world.
In the Caribbean and other parts of the developing world, the moral lines of this issue become clear. Even though Caribbean nations have contributed little to global emissions, they are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis through more intense hurricanes.
Dave Gumbs was the CEO of utility ANGLEC in the Caribbean island of Anguilla when Hurricane Irma hit, destroying homes, schools, and roads, as well as the island’s electricity service. “In the islands, there is no time for debate,” stresses Gumbs. “The frequency of hurricanes is higher each and every year, and our lives essentially depend on how prepared we are and how we change our environment to better that.”
“In the islands, there is no time for debate.”
Under Gumbs’ leadership, ANGLEC had already put its first large-scale solar array in place, which was subsequently destroyed by Hurricane Irma. He says that there was “no question” that they would rebuild the system, and ANGLEC worked with Rocky Mountain Institute to develop an engineering solution to help the system survive even a Category 5 hurricane. Since then, ANGLEC has added a battery storage component.
Gumbs says that money is not the only assistance that is needed from wealthy nations. “I believe that it is the responsible thing for more developed nations that contribute at a higher level to climate change to invest not only financial resources but [also] human and technical resources to combat the effects.”
Women and Energy
When looking at the concept of a just transition, there are many dimensions to consider: the effects on workers, consumers, and communities; the differing needs of rich nations and poor nations; and gender dynamics.
Not only do women and men use energy differently, but they also tend to have different levels of access to energy. This is particularly true in many developing countries, where such access cannot be taken for granted as it is in wealthy nations.
In poor nations where many of the industrial processes are done by hand, the cooking done by women in homes makes up a significant portion of energy use. Much of the fuel used even today is traditional biomass—wood, charcoal, or agricultural by-products—and this has multiple downsides, for forests, climate, and—equally important—family health.
Sheila Oparaocha serves as the international coordinator and program manager for international network ENERGIA, which focuses on the intersection of gender and sustainable energy.
“We find that women are having to spend much more time and effort and walk longer distances” to find firewood, explains Oparaocha. “This has a direct impact on how much time they spend on other productive activities.”
There are also health effects. Burning biomass releases toxic fumes, and this has a direct effect on the health of women, men, and children.
Oparaocha does not consider the specific type of energy as being the essential choice in the development of energy infrastructure in poor nations. Instead, she focuses on the end uses. “There should be a full menu of options that is affordable, reliable, convenient, and safe for women and men to use,” declares Oparaocha.
“There should be a full menu of options that is affordable, reliable, convenient, and safe for women and men to use.”
Many of the solutions that would allow greater energy access for both women and men in the developing world involve renewable energy, including the use of solar to provide electricity in areas not served or underserved by electric grids. However, some use fossil fuels. An example is the use of liquefied petroleum gas for cooking, which Oparaocha describes as a preferable alternative to traditional biomass, at least until a fully renewable cooking fuel solution is widely available and affordable to the poor.
Oparaocha argues that it is essential to craft policies and programs around energy that are not gender neutral but that take gender into account. And this goes not only for the developing world but also the developed world.
According to a recent study by the International Renewable Energy Agency, women make up 32 percent of the workforce in the renewable energy sector. While this is better than the 22 percent in the oil and gas industry, women are still mostly in administrative roles, with fewer in engineering and technical fields.
“It is one thing to have gender policies and gender commitments and ambitions, and it is another thing to translate them into practice,” Oparaocha notes. “It might be there in the intentions, but we don’t always see them translated into policies and practices.”
The transition from fossil fuels toward clean energy creates opportunities for a more sustainable society and, potentially, a more equitable one. But in many cases, these are only opportunities. The future of energy has not yet been written, and our conversations about this future are not only about energy. They are about the kind of society that we want to have as well.