Europe could go backwards on just transition in the face of the fossil-fuel supply crisis. Except that it can’t.
A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of the ‘yellow vests’. The 2018-19 social unrest, which inflamed the heart of Paris, has convinced many policy-makers across the continent of two misunderstandings.
The first is that the energy-climate transition is creating social inequality, which is infuriating citizens. In reality, that transition has barely started: social inequality stems from the existing economic system and non-transition policies.
There is no clearer illustration than the current inflation spurt, as dependence on oil and gas meets fuel poverty, with supply volatility translating into social vulnerability. Arguing that the Ukraine tragedy should further entrench us in that dependency is tantamount to paving the way for the next fuel-poverty crisis.
The second misperception is that the gilets jaunes brought to light an inescapable social-ecological trade-off—pitting the ‘end of the month’ against the ‘end of the world’. Yet poverty does not wait until the end of the month and what’s at stake is not the ‘end of the world’ but an end to the hospitality of planet earth for the most deprived humans. More importantly, just-transition policies are feasible and economical, in Europe and beyond.
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I have recently explored different types of environmental inequalities, including the unequal distributions of vulnerability (the exposure and sensitivity of individuals and groups to environmental degradation) and responsibility (their impact on such degradation). These two forms of inequality emanate from the absence of a robust response to the many facets of the ecological crisis (the climate catastrophe, air pollution and so on)—not from socially-blind pro-environment policies.
We know climate inaction will increase the vulnerability of millions of socially-isolated, older Europeans in the face of devastating heatwaves, of the kind we have seen in Spain and France this summer (nightly temperatures were close to 30C in Paris in mid-June). Pursuing just transition in this case simply means, at last, developing transition policies to mitigate ecological crises and alleviate their toll of injustice.
The Romans, a long time ago, established a judicial principle, ‘one cannot plead one’s own turpitude’ (nemo auditur propriam suam turpitudinem allegans). This principle should apply to the non-transition policies afflicting Europe.
But we should go further along two paths. First, we must show that the necessary reduction of social inequalities can indeed mitigate ecological crises—long-distance air travel, sports-utility vehicles and so on are responsible for the bulk of disproportionate carbon footprints. Conversely, ecological-transition policies can reduce social inequalities and improve the wellbeing of the poorest. For instance, progressive social-ecological taxation, say on carbon in France, can redistribute income to the gilets jaunes rather than penalise their survival emissions without any social compensation—the proposal in 2018, under the first term of Emmanuel Macron as president, which sparked the rebellion.
Martin Luther King once argued that capitalism is a ‘system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes’. Just-transition policies should do the opposite, by restructuring consumption around sufficiency and promoting social co-operation as the breakthrough technology of the 21st century.
The second path is even more ambitious—designing social-ecological policies which, now and in the long run, simultaneously reduce social inequalities and environmental degradation. Plenty already exist at affordable cost, for instance in the areas of mobility and housing, as the recent remarkable report of the third working group (on emissions reduction and mitigation) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates.
This effort should be accompanied by a redefinition of wealth, putting forward alternative social horizons to destructive economic growth, such as ‘full health’. This is a continuous state of wellbeing—physical and psychological, personal and social, human and ecological—emphasising the holistic nature of health, linking the mental to the physiological, the individual to the collective and humanity to the planet.
In its first version of December 2019, the ‘Green Deal’ did not mention the word ‘inequality’. Now social injustice, fuelled by inflation, is threatening the environmental ambition of the European Union. This risk of derailment should be taken seriously, which means doubling down rather than backing down on that ambition.
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It is the very nature of non-transition policies to threaten transition policies. But we cannot go from shock to policy reversal, and to shock again, and call this a strategy. The European ecological transition was not meant to be a reversible public posture—it is a vital social necessity.
Éloi Laurent was one the speakers at the ETUI/ETUC conference ‘A Blueprint for Equality’ in June, for which Social Europe was media partner; anyone who missed the event or would like to watch the debates again can do so here
Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE, the Centre for Economic Research at Sciences Po in Paris, professor at its School of Management and Innovation and visiting professor at Stanford. He is author inter alia of The New Environmental Economics: Sustainability and Justice (Polity Press).