Can “Just Transition” fail to be a transition that is just?

This is my first academic essay ever. It was part of the Climate Change Policy and Governance module at Dublin City University Masters in Climate Change. I loved pulling all this information together and challenging the “Just Transition” concept that I believe is great in theory but not so good in the way we are implementing it. That’s my opinion and here’s why I believe that.

A transition that is just must respect everybody equally, support everyone affected and be initiated immediately

The planet is warming due to climate change and humanity must transition to an economy and society that is not dependent upon heat trapping greenhouse gas emissions. This transition will require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented change (IPCC 2018). This transition has implications for everyone dependent upon a high emissions economy and everyone in Ireland, who engages in any way with society, is dependent upon a high emissions economy.

The government has been commissioning research for many years about how best to manage this transition. Advisors have repeatedly stated that the process must be intentional, a deliberate action led by the government (NESC 2014). They advise that it must be collaborative and participatory by ensuring that communities and the public are part of the process. 

One of the dominant theories in recent years has been the need for a “Just Transition” which focuses on the dependents of emissions intensive industries directly affected by the transition; for example the employees engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and peat and their communities. 

At this critical stage, a society wide transition that is just is a much more worthy pursuit and that efforts to implement the Just Transition process are distracting from that. If the government had implemented the Just Transition process a decade ago then it may have been appropriate but they declared a climate emergency in May 2019 so the focus must be on an immediate society wide transition that is just (Dail Eireann 2019). Employees of fossil fuel and other polluting industries deserve justice and that would be part of a national transition that is just. 

A look at Ireland’s transition process to date shows that the government and industry have had ample time to engage in a transition process but have failed to do so. Now they are wasting time focusing on one area  and diluting the climate emergency message. The focus on a Just Transition in one area does not address the injustices to other communities involved in the transition process, even in the same area. 

This lack of a coordinated, whole of society action is a gross injustice to the young people of Ireland, the world and future generations. 

The term Just Transition has historically been associated with workers rights and most recently become associated with the low carbon transition. The term was taken up by the United Nations, for the Silesia Declaration “Solidarity and Just Transition” (UNFCCC 2018). The Scottish Just Transition Commission, SJTC, aims to apply the Just Transition Principles of the International Labour Organization (Government of Scotland 2020; ILO 2015). The SJTC summarise them into 3 points:

  • “plan, invest and implement a transition to environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, sectors and economies, building on Scotland’s economic and workforce strengths and potential
  • create opportunities to develop resource efficient and sustainable economic approaches, which help address inequality and poverty
  • design and deliver low carbon investment and infrastructure, and make all possible efforts to create decent, fair and high value work, in a way which does not negatively affect the current workforce and overall economy”

The transition referred to in this paper is the move from the current high emissions economy and society to the low carbon economy and society required to stabilise global greenhouse gas emissions. According to Skea and Nishioka a low carbon society should adopt the principles of sustainable development to meet the development needs of all groups of society while making an equitable contribution to stabilising global greenhouse gas emissions. They explore and recommend a list of measures necessary to achieve a low carbon society. From wide scale behavioural change to transformative financial measures the everyday lives of many people must be altered permanently to achieve a low carbon economy and society, (Skea and Nishioka 2008).

To better explain what it is to be “just” in this circumstance, it is best to understand what is unjust. “Unjust” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “Not fair or equitable. That does not observe the principles of justice or fair dealing; not acting justly, fairly, or impartially, esp. in administering justice; not behaving in an equitable manner with regard to a person or thing” (OED 2020). Therefore to have a transition that is “just” is to be fair, equal and impartial. 

Policy background

In July 2014 Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council launched their report “Wind Energy in Ireland: Building Community Engagement and Social Support” (NESC 2014). In order for a transition to happen it is imperative that alternative energies and other measures are supported by the public. People need to care, be engaged collectively and involved in climate action, at all levels, in order to effectively address climate change (Watson 2020). People need to be part of the process. Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, The Aarhus convention, is fundamental to participation and decision making in a just manner (UNECE 1998). NESC refers to the Aarhus convention and the recommendations are strong on the approach to community engagement. 

The Aarhus Convention links environmental rights and human rights. It acknowledges that we owe an obligation to future generations; establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders; links government accountability and environmental protection and focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities in a democratic context. Ireland ratified the Aarhus convention in 2012. NESC proposed a genuine and open process of effective and inclusive public participation to ensure a whole society process that is intentional, participatory and problem-solving with a national discussion as an integral component (NESC 2014).

These recommendations were made in 2014 while Ireland’s National Energy Policy was under review so the NESC report was well timed to contribute to shaping that policy. The national energy white paper “Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030” proposed to empower energy citizens with new structures and processes to enhance citizen and community engagement as well as the establishment of a National Energy Forum (DCENR 2015). 

Is the process intentional?

Much like the 2014 NESC recommendation of an intentional transition, research continues to state that the government must lead a deliberate Just Transition in collaboration with workers and communities (Mercier et al. 2020). The Midlands region has become the first area in Ireland to engage in an official Just Transition process. In Oct 2018, Bord na Móna, the semi state peat extraction company, announced plans to accelerate their decarbonisation strategy (Bord na Mona 2018). In response to the announcement and imminent job losses, Offaly County Council established the Midlands Regional Transition Team, MRTT. In April 2019 the MRTT held an emergency conference in Offaly aiming to tackle the issues surrounding climate change, building a Just Transition in the area and attracting more eco-friendly companies into the region (Offaly Independent 2019).

In October 2019 in a statement on Bord na Mona, the national government announced plans to appoint a Just Transition Commissioner and funding measures (Merrion St 2019): 

“Minister Bruton has met with the Chief Executives of ESB (Electricity Supply Board) and Bord na Móna, public representatives, worker directors of Bord na Móna, the midlands regional transition team and the regional skills forum (ESB 2020). He has also met with representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Bord na Mona Group of Unions and the European Commission. The government will shortly appoint a Just Transition Commissioner and will work with all stakeholders to  develop a comprehensive response for the region.”

Soon after the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment appointed a commissioner specifying the engagement of relevant stakeholders in order to recommend the essential elements of a just transition for workers and communities in the region. The Terms of Reference included that the commissioner help to “ensure a coordinated and effective approach to Just Transition, focusing initially on communities and workers affected by the ending of peat harvesting for power generation in the Midlands region” (DECC 2020). The promised funding of €31 million was planned to include bog restoration, housing upgrades, reskilling workers and community development.

The cessation of peat harvesting did not come as a surprise to decision makers and government in the midlands region considering their awareness of climate change. Measures to lower emissions of greenhouse gases was part of Offaly County Development Plan 2014-2020 (Offaly Co Co 2014). Bord na Mona was claiming to have “A contract with nature” in 2010 (Viney 2010). Their website claims there have been plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels since 2007 (Bord na Mona 2007). 

In 2018 the Climate Change Advisory Council Report to the Government states that “The biomass subsidy for peat power plants is an environmentally harmful subsidy resulting in substantially higher emissions of greenhouse gases at significant direct cost to the nation” (CCAC 2018). In June 2018 the Chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council reported that the annual subsidy of €100 million paid to Bord na Mona for electricity generation was double the salaries of those working in electricity generation there (Fitzgerald 2018).

In July 2019 a court case between Friends of the Irish Environment Ltd and The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Attorney General resulted in Bord na Mona having to drastically cut its peat extraction (High Court 2019). The media reported “The court ruled that those seeking to extract peat from Irish bogs larger than 30ha in size had to acquire planning permission prior to obtaining a licence from the EPA” (Mc Cormack 2020). It has been clear for many years that Bord na Mona would have to cease peat extraction. 

The chain of events that led to the Just Transition strategy for the midlands was a direct response to a decision taken by Bord na Mona in 2018. The government did not lead an intentional transition process. The government did not lead a deliberate Just Transition in collaboration with workers and communities (Mercier et al. 2020). The industry decided upon an abrupt ending and given that Bord na Mona is 95% state owned it could be argued that the state decided upon an abrupt ending, ignoring all of the advice it had commissioned. 

Is the process participatory? 

As well as being a vital component to the transition process, participation is a key component to democracy. Participation by citizens is an indicator for the quality of a democracy (Diamond et al. 2004): 

“With regard to participation, democratic quality is high when we in fact observe extensive citizen participation not only through voting but in the life of political parties and civil society organizations, in the discussion of public policy issues, in communicating with and demanding accountability from elected representatives, in monitoring official conduct, and in direct engagement with public issues at the local level.”

Steps towards the national and European energy transition had been taken in the midlands before the establishment of the Midlands Regional Transition Team or the appointment of a Just Transition Commissioner. In 2009 the NREAP, National Renewable Energy Action Plan, proposed that Ireland would generate wind power to trade with its European partners as per Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (European Commission 2020; European Parliament 2009). In January 2013 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Irish and United Kingdom energy Ministers that would see electricity exported from Ireland to the UK (UK Gov 2013). Applications were lodged for industrial scale wind farm developments throughout the Midlands. People Over Wind  “concerned with the size and scale of proposed wind farm developments in the Midlands area” was established soon after (POW 2013). 

2009 plans by Eirgrid, the State owned grid management company, proposing to instal an electricity substation were challenged by the communities of Ratheniska, Timahoe and Spink, Co Laois (Eirgrid 2009). The RTS Substation Action Group was established to represent the communities involved (RTSSAG 2010). On 28 Nov 2020 a headline in a local newspaper read “EirGrid, ESB and community group remain at loggerheads over proposed substation” (Hartnett 2020). 

In 2010 the European Union was challenged for a breach of the Aarhus convention over the drafting of Ireland’s NREAP. In 2012 the Aarhus Compliance Committee found that the European Union was at fault for the way that Ireland had prepared their NREAP (UNECE 2020; European Union 2012). The ruling had implications for the wind and grid development proposals in the midlands. Community groups found common ground in their campaigns. The entire county of Laois is now engaged in the transition process. As well as costs for households and communities, Laois County Council increased the property tax in 2017 in order to raise funds for legal fees associated with wind farm companies in 2018 (Kiernan 2017; Leinster Express 2015; Leinster Express 2015 May; Kiernan 2017 Sept). Laois County Council had voted to remove all wind farm areas from the County Development Plan in 2017 but had been “forced to reinstate the map by the Minister for Energy” (Kiernan 2019). These communities and state agencies have been engaged in very time consuming and expensive processes for over 10 years. 

The Just Transition Commissioner issued a progress report in April 2020 and an update in September (DECC 2020a). Interestingly the report in April indicates that the term Just Transition does not include many people and communities affected but not identified as directly impacted by the transition process. It states:

“In this transformation, the “Just Transition” is not just about those employees and communities who are already directly impacted by the pressures of climate change, such as in the Midlands, but also the communities, land owners and others across the whole country who are being and will be asked to allow infrastructure, including wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, energy parks, substations and underground cables, on their land or in view of their houses. Community engagement is vital, showing that concerns of communities and individuals are heard and understood, and that there is an honest and honourable commitment….”

In that paragraph the need for meaningful public participation is highlighted. Jodoin et al confirm the integral role of public participation as a major component in successful climate action (Jodoin et al 2015). NESC advised that when communities contribute they are more likely to be supportive of future developments (NESC 2014). 

It is unclear how much the wider population in the midlands have participated in the recent Just Transition process to date. The Terms of Reference for the Just Transition Commissioner includes a list of relevant stakeholders to engage. Numerous state agencies, businesses and other official bodies are mentioned as are “Local community organisations” as well as “The relevant trade unions and worker representatives” but there is no mention of the public. There are numerous references to community engagement but participation and engagement are not the same and that is a whole other paper. The Public Participation Network was listed in the April report but not in September. 

A look at some key phrases or words from the commissioners reports indicates the activities or focus of the Just Transition in the midlands. The following is a comparison table showing the number of pages each word appears in:

Word AprilSept*EquivalentDifference
Community30515– 50%
Fund492163+30%
Transition552266+20%
PPN/Public Participation Network100-100%

*The weighted equivalent is based on the number of pages. The April report has 72 pages and September has 24. Multiplying the number of references in the September report by 3 gives the weighted equivalent.

There is a “Midlands Engagement Process” which is centred around applications for the Just Transition fund (MRTT 2020; DECC 2020b). Climate action does not feature on the website page. It is referred to in the Midlands Engagement booklet, accessed via the website, listed amongst the numerous reasons for the funding. The highlighted text in the introduction to the booklet reads “Please note you must register your project through this engagement process, to proceed with an application for funding to the national Just Transition Fund”. The MRTT is the listed contact for the booklet and website.

It is unclear from the information available about the Just Transition process in the midlands, how much information was shared with the wider population. Of course the onset of the COVID19 pandemic will have affected engagement in person. 

Access to information is a right protected by the Aarhus convention and in these times of online access it is much easier to make information available. However there is no dedicated webpage or website for a Just Transition in Ireland including the process in the midlands. There is some information about the Just Transition Commissioner in various places including Offaly County Council, various government reports and on the website midlandsireland.ie. This website is not a dedicated site for the midlands transition process. It is a well established website for information on tourism, enterprise, education and life in the midlands. There is no direct or clear pathway to information about the Just Transition process under way in the midlands. Access to the information that does exist is an arduous task.

In examples from elsewhere, Colorado created the Office of Just Transition which has a dedicated web page within the national government website containing clear information, links to further sections and a timeline vision (Colorado Government 2020). The Scottish Just Transition Commission has a dedicated web page with information about the office including minutes of meetings (Government of Scotland 2020). Both have contact details and welcome feedback. 

The term Just Transition is open to interpretation as is the term low carbon. Without adequate explanation people may not comprehend or register the fact that this is a concerted effort to lower emissions and tackle climate change. It is a missed opportunity to build cohesive commitment to tackle climate change.

Despite all of these top down initiatives by the national government there are still no lasting frameworks or processes to enhance citizen and community engagement and comprehensive participation in the national transition as per the national energy policy and NESC recommendations. 

Conclusion

At this critical stage, a top down, bottom up, society wide transition, that is just, must be the focus of the whole country if we are to do justice to future generations. A deliberate plan to tackle climate change.

While the Just Transition process in the Midlands is relatively new the lack of information and a clear vision around the process does not give much confidence that it is a well thought out strategy for success. It has been a series of reactionary measures to an industry led action responding to climate and energy policies nationally and internationally. It is not a national plan and focuses around one sector of society in one area of the country. It does not have a clear mandate that has been developed in conjunction with the public. 

The messaging being used is not raising awareness of climate change and the bigger picture. 

There isn’t another 10 years to find out if this Just Transition process works properly. More work would be necessary to devise a Just Transition strategy that incorporates access to information and public participation. Further research will also be necessary to show if it is working effectively. Employment and livelihoods must be protected and so the ethos of the just transition must be embedded in whatever process is employed. 

What is needed is a national transition strategy that is just, in compliance with the Aarhus convention, respects everybody equally and supports everyone affected. That must begin immediately. Ultimately this lack of a coordinated, whole of society action is a gross injustice to the young people of Ireland, the world and future generations. 

Theresa O’Donohoe

January 2021

Bibliography

Published by Theresa OD

Change maker and mother of 5 living in the west of Ireland

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