Future Earth Coasts

Summary Report of ‘FEC Fellows Session: Just Transitions’

Summary Report of ‘FEC Fellows Session: Just Transitions’

Dr Leslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Environmental Systems at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist, who is interested in how coastal societies and communities can enhance their resilience to environmental change. Leslie is especially interested in just transitions for coastal regions that rely on carbon-intensive industries; and in nature-based approaches to climate change adaptation and resilience. Leslie recently led a British Academy-funded project into just transitions in Japan, and has published on what the climate and sustainability challenge means for coastal industrial regions in Scotland, Japan and Vietnam. Leslie is also a member of the Young Academy of Scotland. You can read more about his work at resilientcoastal.zone or on Twitter @ljmabon

The first Just Transitions and Coasts FEC Fellows session aimed to lay the contextual groundwork for the following sessions, by providing some basic context and understanding of what a just transition is and what it means for coastal regions, and then providing a series of provocations and challenges as to what the science-policy agenda for just transitions on coasts ought to encompass. Following an introduction by Leslie Mabon (FEC Fellow), we then had a series of contributions from FEC Academy members Tim Smith, Denis Aketo, Liana McManus, and Luiz Drude de Lacerda. These contributions drew in a range of issues and empirical examples, including the importance of going beyond ‘weak sustainability’ and encompassing non-human actors in a just transition; engaging researchers from the Global South in international science-policy fora for coastal just transitions; the implications of just transitions on livelihoods for resource-dependent communities; and the physical environmental legacy of industrial activities and the need for its remediation. Rather than reporting the content of each presentation, the aim of this short note is to draw out a series of overarching themes and questions which ran across the contributions.

First is avoiding the language of just transitions being misappropriated as a discourse of delay. The idea of a just transition as a climate change and sustainability response that does not leave behind people and places that are currently reliant on high-emitting industries, or affect the capability of people to develop sustainable and resilient livelihoods more broadly, is an important one. The breadth of cases and presentations we saw in the session highlighted the need for careful and comprehensive planning and extensive dialogue, if unintended consequences for coastal communities are to be avoided during the rapid reduction of emissions. At the same time, however, it is vital that private sector companies or national governments in high-emitting nations are not able to (mis)use the need for dialogue, or considerations for workforces, as a reason to delay reducing emissions. It is hence crucial that policies and legislation for just transitions in coastal regions incorporate (a) a clear timeframe and goal-point over which the just transition will happen; and (b) a clear articulation of who benefits from a just transition and why a just transition needs to happen, acknowledging that non-human actors such as biodiversity and ecosystems also need to be considered.

Second is whose knowledge and whose science sets the agenda for a just transition. This closely relates to the idea of epistemic justice, which is coming to prominence across social science scholarship as a way of understanding whose experiences are counted as valid knowledge when it comes to identifying problems and the range of potential solutions in society. In other words, there is a danger that when defining what a just transition on coasts looks like, especially for resource-dependent societies, the knowledge of what a sustainable livelihood looks like and what the stresses and pressures are may be lacking. We heard in the session that researchers from the Global South, and from Africa in particular, can find it challenging to access the international science-policy platforms and venues where the research agendas for coastal sustainability are often set. There is hence a need to develop initiatives that build the capabilities of coastal researchers from different contexts to be able to engage with international science-policy fora; and also for those in charge of such international platforms to ensure that scholars from locations that are on the front lines of climate change are able to have their voices heard and their work read. Specific actions that can be taken in this regard include developing the understanding of international journals and science-policy organisations on how to review and include scientific outputs from researchers in the Global South; and creating opportunities for researchers from different global contexts to build skills in publishing in the most visible international journals.

Third and related is how to make language, such as that of just transitions, meaningful to communities. Across the session, we heard that coastal communities – especially those in resource-dependent or agriculture-based societies – are facing multiple pressures in every day life, and hence that more abstract terms such as ‘just transitions’ and ‘carrying capacity’ may not easily gain traction. What is especially important is to engage local institutions – such as local governments, research organisations and NGOs – who may be able to act as trusted intermediaries with communities and help to understand what the implications of a just transition may be for coastal communities’ daily lives. Collaboratively creating definitions of what a just transition means for a specific locality, and building mutual understanding of the time frames over which action happens, can help to translate the concept of a just transition into meaningful action.

Fourth and final is the question of who is responsible for redressing past environmental harms, and how we evidence this. A common theme across the contributions was that as well as understanding the present and the future, a just transition also involves rehabilitating environments that have been damaged by past industrial activity. This is especially important for coastal regions, where polluted or degraded marine environments can limit the potential for realising sustainable livelihoods through, for instance, ecosystem restoration or sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Moreover, especially in coastal and marine settings where pollution can travel over long distances, a robust scientific evidence base is required in order to be able to evidence who is responsible for historic pollution and to understand the remediation actions that are required. Within this, it is also important to acknowledge that although some marine nature-based approaches can immobilise pollutants or sequester carbon dioxide, this does not solve the root cause of the problem. Coastal ecosystems are hence an addition to, and not a substitute for, comprehensive emissions reduction and thorough remediation of contaminated marine environments.

The just transitions scholarship more broadly has gone beyond a narrow focus on workers and economies in high-emitting regions, to encompass much bigger questions about how to manage the transition to a sustainable and net-zero society fairly. In the same way, our session illustrated the multiple ways in which a just transition for coasts can be understood. These key questions of ensuring a just coastal transition is genuinely transformative, inclusive to different experiences and knowledge systems, and guided by an understanding of who is responsible for past and present-day environmental damage will serve as guiding principles for our subsequent Just Transitions on Coasts sessions.

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