Wanted: a low-carbon and fair reset


The following article is authored by Eric Brandstedt.


The fossil fuel era is about to end and, although this is beneficial and necessary in order to maintain a stable climate, it is also potentially very harmful, as most activities today depend on its continuation. Fossil fuels presently account for around 80% of global energy consumption, in sectors such as electricity, heating and transport (Ritchie and Roser, 2020). The difficulties in weaning the world off of from fossil fuels have been emphasised by the complications in scaling up sanctions against Russia following the war in Ukraine, given Russia’s position as a major oil and gas exporter.  


The most difficult part of this transition is not a lack of alternative technologies to replace coal, oil, and gas, nor is it that these technologies are economically uncompetitive (e.g., Stern, 2021). Indeed, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes in its latest Energy Outlook (2021), "[i]n most markets, solar PV and wind now represent the cheapest available source of new electricity". The problem is to secure the public support that is required to move away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. It is a political phase-in/phase-out problem.


Presently, very many individuals, communities, regions, businesses, countries and organisations are heavily invested in fossil fuels and utilise them to create welfare. Some see the energy transition as a threat to their interests and are reluctant to carry transitional costs, which is manifested in opposition to carbon taxes (Jagers et al., 2021). On top of that, the fossil fuel industry, through lobbying campaigns aimed at defending their current business models, sows doubt about when, where, and which changes must be made (Mildenberger, 2020). 


In this situation, we are addressing the problem of how to sort justified and legitimate complaints for transitional assistance from attempts to stall the necessary changes


From the perspective of unions representing workers in the fossil fuel industry, "just transition" has been used to gather claims to various kinds of transitional assistance, such as investments in low-emission sectors, social dialogue, skills development, and active labour market policies (ITUC, 2015). An example of this is the work done by the multi-stakeholder coal exit commission that preceded Germany's decision to phase out coal (Gürtler et al., 2021).  


Another set of grievances and claims for compensation comes from consumers of fossil products, a cause famously pushed by the Yellow Vests (Martin and Islar, 2021) that is presently a much wider concern as oil prices have increased rapidly since the war in Ukraine. There are also the demands of the fossil fuel industry for economic compensation for losses such as stranded assets they face in this transition (van der Ploeg and Rezai, 2020).  


As the screws on the fossil fuel economy are further tightened in the years to come, such claims can be expected to multiply, presenting a serious obstacle to politicians' ambitions to accelerate the decarbonisation plan while also maintaining their positions in office. 


What can be done to prevent social unrest and a legitimacy crisis in the low-carbon transition? A first step is to understand where grievances are coming from, which is partly a task for behavioural science (Maestre-Andrés et al., 2019) but also for normative political theory.  


It requires studies of perceptions of unfairness to identify patterns (Povitkina et al., 2021) as well as of the distributional impact of climate policies (Ohlendorf et al., 2021), but also – and here normative theory is helpful – explanations of the moral reasons that these perceptions point to, which may be inequality, losses of autonomy and failures to recognise others as equals. Fairness is a complex concept, which has to do with both the rejection of unfair distributions, conditional cooperation, and reciprocity (Elster, 1995). These different meanings of fairness can in turn be specified through different principles of justice (Caney, 2020; Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015).  


Decision-makers aiming to facilitate a just transition must disentangle different conceptions of fairness to evaluate complaints. It is necessary for justifying transitional assistance policies, such as tax rebates and exemptions (Green and Gambhir, 2020), and for determining when more foundational reforms of basic institutions are needed to prevent grievances from arising in the first place. 


Not all justice claims are equally justified and not everyone should be compensated for claimed losses. When the opposition to climate policies is justified with merely an appeal to how things are and denial of the need to change, then it should not be allowed to influence the course of necessary change for a climate-resilient future.  


How this should be done in concrete policy terms deserves deep debates, but there are a few pointers. 


First, any sustainable policy process in this context presupposes an open, transparent and trustworthy democratic dialogue around the concept of fairness. Perceived injustices stand in the way of a successful transition and democracy dictates that these must be negotiated in an open process. A model for how this can be done is the Nordic model, that is, a universalist welfare state with multi-level collective bargaining. Secondly, it is desirable that certain overarching principles for fair climate policy are established and then maintained to create predictability and clear rules of the game. Finally, climate policies must be progressive.  


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Caney, S., 2021. Climate justice. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/justice-climate/> 


Elster, J., 1995. Fairness and norms. Social Research, 73(2), 365–376. 


Green, F. and Gambhir, A., 2020. Transitional assistance policies for just, equitable and smooth low-carbon transitions: who, what and how? Climate Policy, 20(8), 902–921. https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2019.1657379 


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ITUC, 2015. Climate Justice: There Are No Jobs on a Dead Planet. International Trade Union Confederation. https://www.ituc-csi.org/ituc-frontlines-briefing-climate 


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Mildenberger, M., 2020. Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics. MITPress. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/12393.001.0001 


Ohlendorf, N. et al., 2021. Distributional Impacts of Carbon Pricing: A Meta-Analysis. Environmental and Resource Economics 78(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10640-020-00521-1 


van der Ploeg, F. and Rezai, A., 2020. Stranded assets in the transition to a carbon-free economy. Annual Review of Resource Economics 12, 281–298. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-resource-110519-040938 


Povitkina, M., Carlsson Jagers, S., Matti, S. and Martinsson, J., 2021. Why are carbon taxes unfair? Disentangling public perceptions of fairness. Global Environmental Change, 70, 102356. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102356 


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Eric Brandstedt is a Senior lecturer in human rights studies and associate professor in philosophy at Lund University, Sweden. He is the PI of an interdisciplinary research project (funded by the Swedish Energy Agency) about a just transition to a low-carbon future. 


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.