Just Transition Already Lah

Day 2 of COP 24 kickstarted with much buzz around “just transitions”. Just transition has been described as a just and ethical process to shift to a low-carbon economy, keeping in mind the implications towards socioeconomic, energy and environmental systems. The need for just transition has come up primarily as an environmental justice issue in civil rights movements, before being included in climate change discussions over the past few years.

Got to take the YOUNGO seat during the official opening ceremony

Within the just transition movement, there are groups advocating for the acceleration of low-carbon efforts, and there are groups that call for less ambitious mitigation. Communities experiencing climate change effects and suffering from distributional inequity are coming forward to call for better management of mitigation efforts as the economy undergoes changes. Thematic movements include energy democracy, food sovereignty, and sustainable job opportunities. In the other camp, we have the traditional coal miners and shale frackers who are still relying on fossil fuel extraction to put bread on the table. The tension going forward with decarbonizing the economy has been brewing all these years especially in labor union strongholds of Europe. The gilets de jaune protests are still happening in France as we speak.

The chatter on just transitions in COP 24 came from both sides of the transition story piece. In the beginning of the conference, CSOs were critical towards the Polish presidency’s message (based on my experience at that one pre-COP CAN strategy meeting I attended but still!) In the month leading up to COP 24, the Polish Presidency’s released a three-pronged strategy for the conference, one of which underscores for an ethical and fair shift in market. These key strategies were reiterated during the presidency’s opening speech on the second official day of COP.

COP 24 President Michal Kurtyka delivering the opening address. Photo by Andrzej Grygiel/EPA-EFE.

While the preceding Fijian presidency underlined just transitions for all and especially vulnerable communities that are at the frontline of experiencing climate change effects, the Polish presidency honed in on just transition matters in the coal industry. COP 24 president Michal Kurtyka gave a powerful speech on working together towards a low carbon future, tying in a message on balancing climate action and human behavior. To quote: “How do you tell a population of 5 million in 70 cities in the Silesian region to move on?” This sentiment was shared by the mayor of Katowice, Maric Krupa as he talked about the achievements of the city and how far they have come. Reigning in the message in for the third time, the Polish environment minister Henryk Kowalcyk called for more social cost consideration in decision-making concerning decarbonization. Clearly, Poland was ambiguous about their feelings on transitioning.

Before I continue, I would like to clarify that by no means I am anti-just transition. My take is but a critical lens on what the Polish presidency has to say about just transitions in the COP space because it does reflect on their intended outcomes of COP 24. But I digress. The Solidarity and Just Transition Silesian Declaration was presented by Kowalcyk during the opening ceremony and contains language that is more accommodating towards the Paris Agreement and climate action efforts than I expected. While Katowice takes pride in going from “black to green” in the Upper Silesian region known for its coal production, I think that the Polish presidency, in upholding this model city, fails to address just transition in practice. My Uber driver laid down some quick facts about Upper Silesia for me, as we drove towards the city from the airport. Apparently, there are some 20 (27 as of 2014) coal mines still in operation in the Upper Silesian coal basin, accounting for ~ 74% of coal mining activity in Poland and producing up to 330 million tonnes of coal within the 2010 – 2014 period. The model city, it seems, managed to transform because the region needed a place to grow their service sector and it just so happened to be Katowice. My driver continued to lament about the satellite cities and the collective challenge to “go green”, citing the legacy of a coal-heavy economy. “Mining runs in the family… it’s all they really know how to get an income.”

Coal at the Katowice Pavillion

During my daily commute to Katowice, I couldn’t help but notice the power plants puffing away in the vast, open fields in between station stops at towns. How is it that countries like Poland wean off coal? To think of it, the transition will happen if you want it or not, it’s the justice aspect that you’ll have to consider. When I dropped by the Katowice pavilion, I thought the whole coal display was distasteful in contrast to the reality of the industry’s future. Soaps and coal pendants available at the nearest tourist information center is not going to get coal miners out of a dying industry, the political will to provide transitional platforms will. Until alternative industries flourish and potential employees undergo suitable training, the Upper Silesian region will only bask in the shadows of monumental “progress” in hosting COP 24 and the climate action success attributed to it. Just transition already lah…

Written by Tan Cai May
Reviewed by Mike Campton

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