Podcast: How to phase out fossil fuels without leaving people behind
This Podcast is part of the Just Transition and Equitable Climate Action Resource Center within the WRI's Climate Program, Center for Equitable Development, and Climate Equity.
This podcast miniseries, “Just Transition in Action,” shares perspectives and insights from people around the world to illustrate what we’ve learned about how to shift toward a net-zero economy that values all workers and communities.
But what does a just transition actually look like? As guests, Carlos Lopes, Carole Excell and David Waskow explain, it’s about more than fossil fuel workers — and it depends a lot on the local context.
“Africa can jump into green industrialization. Clean modern energy could fuel the region’s economic growth, accelerate the expansion of electricity to rural areas. Moreover, we have this possibility with renewables also to get into fast-growing areas of progress that others are trying to catch up with.” – Carlos Lopes, Professor at University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School and Former Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa.
“There needs to be a harder look at how to ensure that a just transition is transparent and participatory and it really involves longer-term engagement with citizens’ needs, and also really ensuring that inclusiveness is thought deliberately.” – Carole Excell, Director of Strategy, Waverley Street Foundation.
“I’m not going to worry too much about the executives at an oil company or a coal company, but the workers who have been part of that economy, who have not really driven that agenda from the top, we can’t just leave by the side of the road.” – David Waskow, Director, International Climate Initiative, WRI.
Nicholas Walton 00:06
Hello and welcome to the Big Ideas Into Action podcast from the World Resources Institute, and this is the first in a special series looking at just transition. There are plenty of winners when we shift to low-carbon economies, but what happens to those that may be left behind? In this miniseries we look at some of the challenges, but also the solutions and opportunities.
David Waskow 00:26
There are gonna be 24 million new jobs potentially from strong climate action by 2030, but at the same time, there will be 6 million jobs that are lost.
Carole Excell 00:35
The choice to me is clear: You have to bring communities along in in any just transition process because you will actually harm more if you don’t.
Carlos Lopes 00:42
Africa can jump into green industrialization. Clean modern energy could fuel the region’s economic growth.
Nicholas Walton 00:53
Hello, I’m Nicholas Walton, and this is the first in a special WRI podcast miniseries looking at just transition. It’s one of the thorniest issues in the shift to low-carbon economies: what happens to those whose lives, livelihoods and communities are left behind as we move away from fossil fuels? We’ve a special resource section on our website where you can find out much, much more: go to wri.org/just-transitions. And meanwhile in this podcast series we’ll look at three case studies — from Australia, India and the U.S. — and ask what we can learn from them. But here in this first episode, we’ll hear from three experts about the whole issue itself. To explain more, here’s my colleague from WRI’s Climate program, Molly Bergen.
Molly Bergen 01:36
The world is in the middle of a climate crisis, and to address it we need to quickly shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. This transition is already happening, as solar and wind energy get cheaper to produce and fossil fuel power plants have a harder time making a profit. But this isn’t always straightforward. It’s a technical and political challenge, but it’s also something that affects lives and livelihoods. So where does this leave the workers who have built careers and communities in an industry that has no place in a warming world?
David Waskow 02:08
I’m not going to worry too much about the executives at an oil company or a coal company, but the workers who have been part of that economy, who have not really driven that agenda from the top, we can’t just leave by the side of the road.
Molly Bergen 02:23
This is David Waskow, the director of WRI’s International Climate Initiative. He says you can’t just think about jobs lost or gained here and there — you have to think about where new opportunities might be within a low-carbon economy.
David Waskow 02:36
We have data from the International Labor Organization that shows that there are gonna be 24 million new jobs potentially from strong climate action by 2030, but at the same time, there will be 6 million jobs that are lost in other sectors. For example, coal mining communities, communities where there’s oil and gas as a key part of their economy.
So, what does it mean to transition to a sustainable agriculture system? What does it mean to reduce deforestation for communities that are dependent on forests for their livelihoods? Often it will be beneficial for them, but how do we engage in that transition so that it’s equitable? So that means making sure that they have ways to access retraining, employment programs, that there’s social protection for those who can’t find work, all of that is essential. It’s especially true for workers that can’t simply transition from a coal mining job into a software job let’s say. But there may be other things — for example, reclaiming mines in ways that improve the ecosystems in a community, could be one area in which there could be jobs.
Molly Bergen 03:44
One place where this has been going well is the Ruhr region in western Germany, which has been working on phasing out coal power for decades.
David Waskow 03:52
Starting in the ‘90s they transitioned away from coal and in part they worked to provide early retirement for miners, opportunities for job transitions including training and so forth, but they also really focused on how to build a broader economy in that region. They brought a technology park to the region, they really invested in universities and higher education, and also looked at how to make it a green economic region, and so all that has really helped drive an economy there that means that people have been able to find jobs. And I think that’s a success story and a real model for the way in which this could be done.
Nicholas Walton 04:32
You’re listening to a special WRI podcast miniseries looking at the issue of just transition. Now, back to Molly Bergen.
Molly Bergen 04:42
So we’ve seen that thinking about how to create a just transition to a low-carbon economy means embracing the opportunities for new jobs and livelihoods, rather than simply thinking about job losses in older, polluting industries. But how do we recognize where these opportunities are, in different countries under different conditions? David Waskow says it’s critical to get input from lots of different people.
David Waskow 05:05
The best examples out there right now of a just transition are ones where a variety of stakeholders come to the table and work through these issues, and especially where communities and workers who are affected are part of that process and really have a voice. For example, in Germany a commission on phasing out coal brought together leaders across environmental and other NGOs, labor unions, business and other constituencies and work through what a coal phaseout plan should be.
Molly Bergen 05:35
But it’s not enough to just get the right people in a room. When and how they are included in the process also matters, and can make the difference between whether their concerns and ideas are addressed or swept under the rug.
Carole Excell 05:46
Most countries still just use simple consultation approaches, where they invite you for a day or two, lecture you on what these changes are going to be and then leave, and there’s no guarantee that your recommendations will actually have an impact on policy.
Molly Bergen 06:00
Carole Excell works with the Waverly Street Foundation, and before that was WRI’s Director of Environmental Democracy Practice.
Carole Excell 06:07
We’ve seen in France, real pushback against a transition to try and include more costs on, on fuel, and actually a violent pushback to some of those approaches that were seen as climate-friendly, because they affected the most vulnerable and those who lived in rural areas most, while really not impacting those who probably have much more resources. So I would say that in the case of many transitions, we know we’ve left many people behind.
Molly Bergen 06:38
The communities that live near oil and gas facilities tend to be much poorer than average, and suffer from worse health conditions. That makes it even more important that they are not left out of the decision-making process.
Carole Excell 06:49 Many of those communities that are dependent on coal also have very high air pollution, right, or many communities that are dependent on fossil fuels and petroleum also have high levels of environmental damage. The choice to me is clear: You have to bring communities along in in any just transition process because you will actually harm more if you don’t.
Molly Bergen 07:09
Carole says that some places are starting to adopt new ways of gathering community feedback that may be more effective.
Carole Excell 07:17
We’re seeing more potential in the use of democratic innovative processes, like citizens assemblies, for example. Using a mini-public, so a random sampling of the public, is a very good way to constitute different constituencies across any community or city. But they’re mostly happening in Europe, in northern countries. There needs to be a harder look at how to ensure that a just transition is transparent and participatory and it really involves longer-term engagement with citizens’ needs, and also really ensuring that inclusiveness is thought deliberately. How do you include, for example, women who might need childcare, or the elderly, or the youth?
Molly Bergen 08:02
Careful planning is crucial to make sure that no one is left behind when a power plant closes or a new renewable energy facility opens. But all of that takes time to set up — and if the institutions in power don’t take that time, things go wrong. Here’s David Waskow again.
David Waskow 08:17
So for example, in Poland, in a region in the southwest, there was a shift because of uneconomic coal mining, out of coal mines, starting in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. There wasn’t at that point a transitional plan, and the region fell into quite hard economic times. And in the last decade or so there’s been a shift so that that region really does have the kind of economic diversification that it needs, and new employment opportunities. It really demonstrates I think the importance of proactive planning. It shouldn’t be something you stumble into, it really has to be addressed up front.
Molly Bergen 08:54
Just transition is often talked about as a way to avoid harm — and that’s essential to get local people on board. But one aspect of this shift that’s often overlooked is that if it’s done the right way it will actually improve lives.
Carlos Lopes 09:07
Basically pollution is a way of expressing waste, of not being efficient. And I think if you take into account the opportunities that are offered by the technologies today, and also the knowledge that we have accumulated on how to deal with environmental challenges, it’s obvious that we can obtain economic progress, we can transform people’s lives without being inefficient. That’s why transition becomes so enticing and so exciting.
Molly Bergen 09:37
That was Carlos Lopes, a development economist and professor from Guinea-Bissau who once served as the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa. While some African countries have voiced concerns that the global shift away from fossil fuels will hurt economic growth and poverty reduction on the continent, he sees huge opportunity in this transition.
Carlos Lopes 09:56
When you are in a position of latecomer to industrialization, a lot of talk normally is devoted to “Just forget about it, we should move away from industrialization.” I don’t think that is possible or desirable for Africa because traditionally economies have created a massive number of modern jobs because of industrialization processes. When you are a latecomer, particularly if most of the population of the continent is very young, you can leapfrog into embracing some of these opportunities as well.
Molly Bergen 10:31
So what are these opportunities that Carlos thinks African countries should embrace?
Carlos Lopes 10:36
Africa can jump into green industrialization. Clean modern energy could fuel the region’s economic growth, accelerate the expansion of electricity to rural areas. Moreover, we have this possibility with renewables also to get into fast-growing areas of progress that others are trying to catch up with. And we have all the strategic minerals in the continent that are necessary for these various transitions to take place. Are we going to reproduce yet again the colonial model of commodity dependence? Or are we going to be able to use these strategic minerals to enter into these value chains of the future? Africa is very well positioned to take advantage of the transitions, and it should not look at itself as if it were sort of a “poor player” in the vast number of changes that are taking place in the world right now.
Molly Bergen 11:35
Some African countries are already making progress on this front.
Carlos Lopes 11:38
What Morocco is doing is extremely interesting, because they are concentrating a number of initiatives on the just transition very much linked with the creation of jobs. I think everybody’s looking to South Africa as an enormous lab where lots of things are happening, but where there is lack of consistency and very clear focus in direction. You can also see that some of the climate impact-related initiatives in countries like Rwanda, like Uganda, like Ethiopia, are very much trying to bring to the fore the need for the climate to be part of the transformation of the economy.
Molly Bergen 12:22
Clearly everyone is still figuring out how to pursue the transition away from fossil fuels in a way that’s fair, doesn’t perpetuate further injustices, and more equitably distributes benefits throughout society. To help countries, companies and communities learn from what has worked so far and avoid repeating mistakes that others have made, WRI has pulled together a collection of mini case studies on just transition on our website, wri.org. Here’s David Waskow.
David Waskow 12:48
The resource bank is really I think first of a kind, in that it brings together a number of case studies from around the world to describe the kinds of initiatives that have been undertaken on just transition, mostly focused at this point on the energy sector, the coal sector in particular — that certainly has been a burning issue in Europe and also in the United States. But there are a number of other sectors and other countries that are critical. One of the things that we think is quite important to address is how to go about putting in place new renewable energy. And in developing countries in particular, there have been questions about how to do that equitably, how to make sure that land rights are respected, that water is not depleted for communities, that employment opportunities are equitably distributed. These are questions as well that the resource bank has case studies about.
Molly Bergen 13:43
So far we’ve compiled examples from more than 20 countries on six continents, but more will be added as more places pursue this and more lessons are learned.
David Waskow 13:52
Just transition has very much been framed in a sense that’s relevant for developed countries, especially those that have had a lot of coal assets. But I think that that frame misses some of the key dimensions of just transition that we’re going to have to face in other sectors and in other countries, especially in developing countries. We found this in our research for the resource bank: there hasn’t been much work done on how to transition in the oil and gas sector, for example. So that’s something we are starting to look at. And the situation will look very different, for example in the U.S. compared with Mexico, or Nigeria, and even Ghana will look very different from Nigeria.
Molly Bergen 14:32
Every country or region will need to determine what a just transition looks like in their specific context — in their geography, with their people. But learning from others’ experience can give them a head start. In this special podcast series, we’ll dive into three very different case studies: How a worker transfer scheme helped Australian coal miners stay employed after their plant closed. How a transition fund is keeping public schools and other services in a small town in New York State running after its coal plant was shut down. And how a huge solar park in rural India is working to provide power to city-dwellers without disrupting the lives of nearby farmers. Stay tuned.
Nicholas Walton 15:10
And that was Molly Bergen from WRI’s climate team, ending this first episode in our podcast miniseries on just transitions. As Molly says, we’ve three more podcasts where she examines case studies from Australia, India and the U.S. looking at the unexpected challenges thrown up by the shift from fossil fuels, but also what lessons were learned. You can find out much more in a resources section we’ve put together on our website, which is at wri.org/just-transitions. As Molly says, stay tuned, and thanks for listening.