The significance of the ‘people first’ approach in Biden’s transition to net zero.

Anna Triponel | December 2020

This article was first published in The Beam here

Climate action could be at a turn-around with the election of Joe Biden. Mostly, because the new president and Kamala Harris have put climate justice and people first. 

The election of Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris is the most positive news of the year for anyone concerned about climate change. Within days of their election, Biden-Harris had laid out their manifesto for change which, if realised, could see two-thirds of the world economy have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. For the first time since its adoption in 2015, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature increase limit appears within reach. But even more importantly, Biden has made clear that the journey to net zero will need to be grounded in putting people first – and this is what matters.

The importance of people in climate action

Environmental justice will be a key principle guiding Biden-Harris’ efforts. People are and will increasingly be harmed by climate change in a range of different ways. For example, there is a direct correlation between the impact on agriculture of extreme heat and drought and farmer suicide rates. Poorer air quality is responsible for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year. Rising sea levels and land erosion deliver a cumulative cost of US$300 to 1000 billion, destroying homes, livelihoods and taking lives. And those who suffer the most from the world’s pollution and warming are those who already are the most disenfranchised and poor. Climate change has had a disproportionate impact on communities of colour, low income communities and women. And without action, this entrenchment of vulnerability is only going to intensify.

Biden-Harris recognised the need to protect people from the likelihood of harm caused during transition. They emphasise that the new green economy should create millions of “good paying jobs that provide workers with the choice to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers” in turn affording protection and respect during transition. On the flip side, while we want to tackle climate change’s impacts on people, the transition to a net-zero economy will also harm people. This includes those workers who were part of the greenhouse gas emissions-intensive economy, who stand to lose their jobs. This also includes a new group of people who are impacted by the transition to a greener economy. Communities may be displaced to make way for renewable sector activities. Trafficked and vulnerable workers may be brought in as waste-pickers to support a country’s fledgling recycling industry. Children may mine the minerals needed to operate electric car batteries.

Climate change is harming and will harm people – now and in the future. And climate change mitigation and adaptation actions are harming and will harm people – now and in the future.

Putting people at the heart of the net zero transition is the only way to successfully tackle both the range of impacts already in play and those who will be exacerbated or newly developed in the very near future. Failure to consider the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable, failure to bring workers and communities from the ‘brown’ economy on the journey or failure to consider new risks and impacts on people will be to the detriment of society.

So why is a people centred approach the only course to success and what does it mean?

Climate justice – which captures environmental justice – looks at the climate crisis through a human rights lens. Its focus is to safeguard the most vulnerable people, by sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly. The movement builds upon the principles laid out by former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, that “a zero carbon future is compatible with a zero poverty future, if justice and rights inform the transition.” This is about putting at the heart the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts. Do we prioritise our climate actions based on where people could be impacted the most severely by climate change, or based on where we can demonstrate the most progress on data-driven measures of success?

The idea behind just transition is to consider those impacted by the transition to a green economy. How do coal miners, oil, gas and peat workers see their future right now? What would need to happen for them to buy-in to decarbonisation? How can policy makers ensure their futures while working to avert the climate crisis? These are questions that don’t exclusively apply to energy workers: there are far-reaching considerations also for those in agriculture, transportation, industry and waste and other sectors that will shift with the movement to net zero.

Beyond those working in the economies transitioning to green, however, we have started to see impacts on other groups of people who now are facing harm resulting from the climate actions being put in place.  The rapid transition to renewable energy, recycling and batteries is leading to community displacement, child labour and trafficking opportunities – to name a few. And beyond those impacted by actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, people will also increasingly be impacted by actions taken to adapt to climate change. The displacement of a community before their homeland is lost to water is just one example. And these impacts will intensify as the race to net zero fully takes off.

People have to be at the heart of climate change action. While a future free from carbon emissions may appear halcyon, a society with reduced quality job opportunities and entrenched inequality would be anything but. Consider a future of zero carbon emissions, but with severe inequality and poverty, civil wars linked to water and food scarcity, significant economic instability and a rise in authoritarian regimes.

Putting people first isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the best way to ensure success, because, as Sean McCabe of the Dublin-based Think Tank for Action on Social Change (TASC) points out, people’s buy-in for decarbonising society will only be achieved if they can see the benefits of climate action. For TASC, any climate action should provide direct community benefit too, in order to secure its sustainability.

In recent weeks, multiple world leaders have made important environmental pledges. China’s president, Xi Jinping laid out a plan to reach net zero emissions by 2060; Japan, South Korea and the EU have all made similar undertakings. And this is encouraging news. But even more exciting is Biden-Harris’ recent acknowledgement of the importance of people-centric policies in order to make real and lasting changes.

This matters, not only because the US is the world’s biggest economy and second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but also because it has the potential to become the benchmark for all other nations to aspire to. And this matters because it’s the only way for us to have a possible hope of leaving a better planet to our children.

Intergenerational justice – the fear of what our children and grandchildren will have to face if we don’t do something now – should continue to drive our actions now more than ever. Biden-Harris offers us a welcome opportunity : we should do all that we can to capitalise on this to foster a fairer and brighter future for ourselves and for the people we will leave behind us.

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