The secret to a successful energy transition? Put people first

German farmers block access to highway A10 during a protest against government cuts to vehicle tax subsidies, in Vehlefanz, Germany, January 8, 2024. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

German farmers block access to highway A10 during a protest against government cuts to vehicle tax subsidies, in Vehlefanz, Germany, January 8, 2024. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

What’s the context?

After COP28 climate summit agreed a deal to move away from fossil fuel energy, the focus is on how to avoid social disruption

  • COP28 deal agreed transition away from fossil fuels
  • Measures seen as economically unfair trigger unrest
  • Policy-makers urged to consider social justice in 2024

BARCELONA - The COP28 U.N. climate summit in December produced the first global deal calling on countries to transition away from climate-heating fossil fuels in their energy systems.

The big question for 2024 is how to start putting that into practice quickly - and fairly.

This week, hard on the heels of COP28, held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates amid fears of heavy influence by the fossil fuel industry, German farmers kicked off protests against plans to phase out diesel subsidies, blocking roads with tractors.

The social unrest echoed similar disruptions in recent years in countries from France to Ecuador and Nigeria, triggered by state-led efforts to curb consumption of carbon-polluting fuels by hiking prices.

Experts surveyed by Context on their expectations for climate action in 2024 urged policy-makers to avoid putting the financial burden of a green shift on those who can least afford it.

“We can’t talk about transitioning away from fossil fuels... without talking about what this means for labour markets, what this means for the people that depend on lower fossil fuel costs," said Cassie Flynn, global director of climate change with the U.N. Development Programme.

"Being able to do this in a way that puts people first... is going to be very important," she added.

Ignoring the social impacts risks a backlash that can be co-opted by politicians and others on the "populist right" who are portraying clean air and cheaper energy bills as "the fantasies of an out-of-touch liberal elite", said Rachel Kyte, visiting professor at the University of Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government.

Britain, for example, last year saw debate around the affordability of green measures for the public, such as buying electric cars and installing heat pumps, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak justifying delays to deadlines by arguing they would "impose unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families".

And in Germany, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens has warned that the farmers' right to protest could be exploited by extreme groups, amid support for the agriculture sector's grievances by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

To tackle the "extreme inequality and excessive consumption" that threaten progress on climate action, Kyte flagged the need to argue for - and invest in - green infrastructure that benefits ordinary people "more successfully than to date".

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'Modern slavery' risk

To drive forward such efforts, governments at COP28 approved a three-year "work programme" aimed at planning and implementing a "just transition".

That could include anything from channelling more renewable energy investment for poorer nations to helping workers who are set to lose jobs dependent on fossil fuel use and production.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global climate and energy lead at green group WWF, said the new programme would ensure the issue is part of formal discussions at future U.N. climate summits.

He also urged countries to take a "just transition approach" in their national climate plans - which they are due to be updated by early 2025 - "to ensure the benefits of the energy transition are fairly shared and to avoid negative impacts".

For example, governments could use those plans to design new fiscal systems where a portion of the savings from reducing fossil fuel subsidies could be used to compensate vulnerable households for any subsequent rises in energy prices, said Marcene Mitchell, senior vice president for climate change at WWF-US.

Only about 30% of national plans so far include efforts to promote a just transition, according to Nick Robins, a professor of sustainable finance at the London School of Economics' Grantham Research Institute, while just 3% of the world's 150 most carbon-polluting companies have developed such strategies.

Ritu Bharadwaj, principal researcher for climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, warned the transition could endanger the livelihoods of millions of workers, potentially leading to "conditions resembling modern slavery" unless they are supported with the necessary skills, employment opportunities and a living wage to take up new vocations.

Such considerations are seen as particularly important in poorer nations like India, Bangladesh and Ghana, where many work in the informal sector or without union representation.

An informal gold miner carries a shovel as he climbs out from inside a pit at the site of Nsuaem-Top, Ghana, November 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

An informal gold miner carries a shovel as he climbs out from inside a pit at the site of Nsuaem-Top, Ghana, November 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

An informal gold miner carries a shovel as he climbs out from inside a pit at the site of Nsuaem-Top, Ghana, November 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Help for developing countries

Climate justice campaigners also pointed to the importance of using international gatherings throughout 2024, including the G20, to make progress on a just transition at the global level.

The small share of climate finance going to fund renewables such as solar and wind power in places like sub-Saharan African was a key reason why some developing nations were reluctant to sign up to a full phase-out of fossil fuels at COP28.

Mohamed Adow, founder and director of think-tank Power Shift Africa, said the test for how serious countries are about the energy transition will be how much money they are prepared to commit to enable countries like his - Kenya - to pursue green growth.

"In Dubai, rich countries claimed they wanted a fossil fuel phase-out but their lack of finance didn't back this up," he said.

Adow called on wealthy governments to rectify this at the 2024 COP29 summit in Azerbaijan where a target is due to be set for climate finance from 2025 onwards.

Harjeet Singh, global engagement director at the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, said COP29 should secure robust commitments on an equitable shift away from fossil fuels, and boost funding particularly for the most vulnerable countries.

"It presents a vital opportunity to accelerate global just transition and address the intensifying climate crisis effectively," he told Context.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)

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