There is a race of Olympic proportion raging in front of a packed and engaged global audience. Almost every country from the global south is lined up at the start line while the global north remains a few steps ahead (almost unfairly). No, I am not talking about the Covid-19 vaccination drive. Some (including me) would claim that the stakes are higher in this competition, existential even. I am talking about the race to net-zero carbon emissions.

More than 150 countries including South Africa, Japan, Canada and China have pledged to become net-zero carbon emitters by 2050. There were rumours floating in the news circle that India intends to make a bold statement by aiming for the same milestone by 2040 – a decade before China. Should all of us not be applauding and celebrating this most positive and much needed environmental commitment after the stark warnings that science has delivered on the calamitous impacts of global warming. Not quite yet!

Transition is not easy

A divorce from coal is a messy and complicated affair, even for the most well-equipped countries. It entails fundamental shifts in policies, economics, technology and social structures. In fact, it begins a chain reaction of technological and socio-economic processes paving structural rearrangements in policies, economies and societies.

History warns us that it does not go well for everyone. Transition literature is replete with examples of energy transition which triggers abrupt job losses, mental and physical stress, migration and a dose of resistance from coalitions that stand to lose power and influence.

In Brazil, workers were exposed to toxic wastes from semi-conductor manufacture central to the solar photovoltaic industry. In Gujrat and Rajasthan (India), the dispossession of vulnerable communities on account of solar parks is a norm, not the exception.

Ruhr, a prominent coal belt, in Germany lagged behind in employment figures in comparison to the rest of the country. Energy transition raises sticky questions. We simply cannot afford to separate justice from energy transitions. It leads me to ask: who benefits from energy transitions? How do you embed justice in energy transition and at what costs?

Representational image. Photo credit: Himanshu Sharma / AFP

A “just transition” is not a set of rules written in stone, but a vision and a process to be negotiated. Increasingly, deep decarbonisation is social, cultural or political as much as it is technical. It needs to be cognisant of stakeholders (individuals, communities, regions and industries) that stand to lose and make arrangements to soften the blow – financially and otherwise.

Spain, for instance, announced €250 million investment in mining communities, considering the closure of coal mines. The Spanish government also employed a suite of measures including environmental restoration, early retirement schemes, and retraining schemes. A dedicated just transition fund is a good starting point for India if it aims for a more equitable allocation of resources, but that is only the first step.

Bottom-up approach

All stakeholders deserve a seat at the table. Why? Because a transition is not a top-down technocratic solution that can be enforced with a hammer. It requires meaningful participation and consensus-seeking with the civil society, private sector, educational and research institutes to achieve any measure of success and ownership.

The German Coal Commission included representation from the industry, academia, environmental groups and trade unions to jointly determine a deadline for the country’s transition away from coal. It was informed by the German and Rhineland capitalism is known for its cooperative industrial culture where co-determination by employees is considered a core value. The prevalent democratic norms in India will need to be leveraged to make meaningful participation a reality.

Despite earnest efforts, historically marginalised groups have found it difficult to participate in energy transitions. In some cases, they are less organised or wield less power to make their voice heard. There will need to be a special provision in the design, delivery and monitoring of transition mechanism to cater to different knowledges and worldviews. These will require innovative and integrated thinking from bureaucracies, not to mention redistribution of power.

Finally, a just energy transition has to rekindle the imagination of people reeling from the loss of social-networks, place-attachment, sense of meaning, and self-esteem. Ruhr made earnest attempts to shed its tag of a stagnant polluted area and developed a reputation for innovation. It was rebuilt on the ideas of “liveable”, “green” and “knowledge” to signal their move in line with ecological modernisation. Similar transformation in India will only come with significant investments in infrastructure, education, research and public relations, among others.

The global south does not have the luxury of decades that it took Germany to undertake this transition or the financial resources available to Spain and the United States of America. If the global community wants to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius (enshrined in the Paris Agreement), there is no more time to waste. It is expedient and fashionable in the current political scenario to overlook the time-consuming and financially burdensome dimensions of justice and opt for the quick fix.

As the “developing countries” sign up for this race, it will serve them well to remember that finishing just is equally important (if not more) than finishing first.

Anmol Arora is the author of the book The Last Dance and a Research Consultant at the World Bank. He is currently writing a paper that examines the energy transition in Germany’s Ruhr district.