A just transformation to a sustainable future
Read the concept note for the SDG Conference Bergen 2023.
Sustainable development is not something that high-income countries like Norway have already achieved and that others need. The transition to sustainability, understood as a state in which social foundations of humanity are secured now and for the future within planetary boundaries, requires a global transformation which includes all countries and all actors on equal terms. Hence, the core of this transformation must be a just transition leaving no one behind. Just transition must be driven by research-based knowledge about the ecological limits of this planet (planetary boundaries) as well as other aspects involved in securing social foundations for all of humanity.
Sustainable development is therefore about much more than mitigating climate change, which is the essence of the ‘Code red’ for humanity declared by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the release of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021. Climate change brings a number of human and social consequences, impacting on people’s health and contributing to increasing social inequality and forced migration. Just transition is therefore essential to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Climate change cannot be successfully mitigated from a top-down level without involving people on the ground, including Indigenous Peoples who see their cultural heritage affected and who have so much inherent knowledge on how to live in harmony with nature. Attempting to mitigate climate change without involving affected communities risks social unrest, as the yellow vest demonstrations in France illustrate. Moreover, climate is not the only code red for humanity. We are faced with a whole range of code reds for humanity as the planetary boundaries research amply demonstrates. Of the nine hitherto identified planetary boundaries, at least five of them have been transgressed, including biodiversity, climate and ‘novel entities’ (micro-plastics, nano-materials and various other forms of chemical pollution). A sustainable development recognizes and encompasses the complex interconnectedness between these Earth system processes and humanity. A just transition therefore entails knowledge about how to reduce the pressure on planetary boundaries while ensuring human rights, peace and security, sustenance, health and education, and other social prerequisites for good lives. Increasing inequalities between and within countries, and the social unrest and conflicts these inequalities create, need to be tackled. Reducing inequalities is crucial as a goal in its own right and to achieve consensus for the necessary transformation to sustainability.
A just transition confronts us all with a range of dilemmas and difficult decisions. An obvious point is that policymakers focusing narrowly on climate mitigation, environmental protection and resource efficiency may end up not prioritising or following-up on key social issues such as stopping human rights violations and exploitation of people through slavery-like working conditions. More complex issues concern how work places that disappear through more sustainable and efficient use of resources can be replaced through new kinds of jobs and how the transition to more sustainable and circular business models can be carried out against the inevitable resistance from vested interests in unsustainable industries and labour unions. On a global scale this concerns the question of how a transformation to a global sustainable circular economy within planetary boundaries can be achieved, while securing the continuation of welfare societies in high-income countries and the continuation or establishment of well-functioning welfare societies in other countries around the world.
A just transition therefore also entails focusing on sustainable development as a political concept, where some countries and institutions have been perceived as having greater definitional power. Bringing to the table alternative perspectives and different approaches to the dominant sustainability discourse is crucial. This includes highlighting the history of the sustainable development agenda and its political and ideological assumptions. It also entails recognising that from a research-based concept of sustainable development, all countries are developing countries. We must all learn together how to undertake this fundamental transformation. This also implies challenging unsubstantiated use of sustainability claims by policy-makers and business actors, as a way of marketing incremental change or camouflaging status quo, to deflect attention away from the necessary fundamental transformation.
Focusing on a sustainable transformation of societies to become safe and just for all of humanity, now and for the future, entails thinking about the grand challenges of our time both here and now and for the future. All transitional initiatives must also consider future consequences in a systems-thinking perspective. This poses new challenges to the educational sector. Much teaching is today based on knowledge of the solutions of the past. What is needed now is education that enables students to think long-term and under uncertainty, to assess and discuss risk, and to predict, analyse and tackle the problems of today and of the future. Interdisciplinary and research-based education on the integrated topics of climate, environment and social justice should be a key element of all education at all levels.