The roadmap towards a more just future

Prof. Jeremy Moss Professor of Political Philosophy at UNSW considers the role of climate justice in navigating toward a net zero economy.

As world leaders acknowledge the need for a climate transition, the road to achieve a net zero global economy will require huge adjustments to our way of life. On the horizon are new technologies, adaptive consumption behaviours and extensive costs for individuals and states.

These changes will require leaders to develop policy based on the best available understanding of climate change that is both cost-effective and able to gain widespread public support. This is a difficult task, however the benefits cannot be understated. An energy transition, for example, offers opportunities for society to benefit from a cleaner environment, cheaper energy and increased energy independence.

To navigate through the complex tensions that exist between the costs and opportunities for society, it is therefore crucial for effective transition plans to incorporate robust principles of justice. There are four key types of issues that are raised by a just transition.


1. Who will be impacted?

Which states, communities, institutions, companies, groups or individuals share the benefits and burdens of a transition and how can we decide who is given priority in receiving support during the transition phase?

For example, phasing out the production and use of coal will inevitably involve job losses for miners and those in support industries. There will likely be other, immediate and flow-on effects too, such as bankruptcy of whole companies, stranded assets, lost royalty revenue, unrehabilitated mines and, potentially debilitating impacts felt by whole regions or communities. These effected  individuals and groups can be understood as moral agents; people or groups to whom we owe duties and who owe duties to others.

So the first issue concerns who are the agents to whom duties are owed and by whom? Who, or which communities or types of households ought to receive subsidies or hands-on assistance for the installation of renewable technologies? Should scarce resources be directed first to families or individuals who will benefit most, such as those already at a disadvantage or otherwise badly-off? Or should we ensure that public institutions enterprises – schools, hospitals, government departments – are given first priority in receiving access to renewable technologies? Getting these priorities right is hugely important.


2. How do we measure the way society is impacted?

Climate transitions will also have to address the issue of what kind of things ought to be distributed between and within societies. This is the second dimension of climate justice: the currency, or metric, of justice. Effective action on climate change will require new technologies, compensation for those affected, loss of lifestyles for some or even whole lifestyles transformed, as well as restrictions on the use of natural resources such as fossil fuels, and banks on carbon sinks such as oceans and forests. These have to be weighed and assessed.

One obvious good to be distributed is the right to emit the remaining carbon budget. Countries have to reach agreement on how to distribute the remaining rights to emit GHGs so that the risk of dangerous climate change is minimised.


A unified approach: Justice and mitigation

The combination of these broader goals with the narrower goal of mitigating climate change is what we can call a ‘unified’ approach to a climate transition.

Contrast this unified approach with standard approaches to climate transition. It is typical to say that the main, if not sole, aim of a transition is the reduction of emissions as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is called the ‘isolation’ approach. It is isolated because the main goal is, morally, simple and minimal: reduce emissions, even if some attention is paid to other issues. According to the isolation approach, other moral goals should be set aside, or considered to be of secondary importance, in the pursuit of the goal of minimising GHG emissions.

According to the unified approach, however, other moral goals should be pursued in conjunction with the emission reduction goal. Put simply, a transition should combine concern for justice with concern for mitigation.

Ultimately, we must balance the demands of these two sets of goals. But it is important that we keep them both at the heart of our decision-making process.


Learning from our past when applying a unified approach to justice

Justice-based decision making during recent public crises can provide useful insights into how incorporating a unified approach to justice by world leaders may improve outcomes. The 2008 global financial crisis has been subject to extensive critique regarding the influence of justice-based considerations and whether they were applied effectively. With the primary aim of avoiding or at least minimising the harsh effects of economic recession, governments of the day provided ‘stimulus packages’, which, in essence, consisted of various forms of financial support.

The details of the 2008 packages however, reveal a limited unified approach and lessons which can be learned towards developing a more just transition in future crises. For instance, bailing out banks rather than directly assisting families with school-age children, carers, students, and farmers reflects a choice about what other goals governments had.

Thus, focusing on justice is both desirable and unavoidable. Desirable because it offers the opportunity to achieve other important moral goals; unavoidable because, without concern for justice, a climate transition risks needlessly rendering people worse off and potentially making them less likely to endorse a transition.

Incorporating justice-based reasons for transitions does not mean a transition will not be burdensome. Given the scale of the required climate transition and the technological, social, economic and political restructuring entailed, it will require a huge range of resources.

Adopting a justice-based approach to climate transition does introduce further complexity and difficulty to the decision-making process. However, it also allows planners to appreciate the opportunities inherent in a climate transition.

Even beyond such benefits, the need to significantly restructure and reshape societies provides an opportunity to improve society in ways beyond mitigating immediate and obvious environmental danger ‘while we’re at it’. While it may appear daunting, taking seriously a unified approach allows us to reframe transition as an opportunity, not simply a challenge or problem to ‘fix’. Taking the unified approach outlined here helps to bring this latter view into focus. Rather than looking outward and doing the bare minimum along this single dimension to avoid a looming threat, nations should embrace the opportunity to create reforms and changes to create a substantially more equal society.

Professor Jeremy Moss
Professor of Political Philosophy
UNSW Sydney

Professor Moss’s main research interests are in political philosophy and applied philosophy. Current research interests include projects on: climate justice, the ethics of renewable energy as well as the ethical issues associated with climate transitions. He leads the Climate Justice Research program at UNSW.