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A just transition

By Naji Makarem

02 February 2023

News Category: Thought Leadership

A just transition is perhaps the most important fuzzy concept we must clarify today. We cannot hope to achieve a just transition to an inclusive and sustainable world without a crystal clear and widely shared vision; without a good framework for a just transition.

At UrbanEmerge, like our peers across many organisations we have worked with since 2017, we have been unlearning and transcending our thinking to align with inclusion and environmental sustainability.

A significant innovation that we developed for Mannion Daniels (while developing a tool to guide civil society organisations (CSOs) on environmental sustainability of their operations) was to emphasise that climate change is one dynamic in a much wider field of environmental considerations. As such, we categorised actions around climate, ecology and waste/pollution.

The tool we developed invites all the employees and associates of CSOs to consider climate, ecology and waste in an integrated way, for example, by reducing plastic and non-recyclable packaging to the bare essential (Waste), procuring regional (locally produced) organic/ agroecological food and beverages whenever possible (Ecology) and considering the end of life of all their consumption and packaging by re-using, recycling, composting where possible. These mitigating actions for Ecology and Waste incidentally also reduce GHG emissions (we also developed a simple GHG emissions calculator for CSOs).

This broader framework for the environment we believe opens up social, cultural and economic possibilities unimaginable through a narrow and myopic prism of focusing exclusively on reducing GHG emissions.

We agree that aiming for Net Zero opens up opportunities for innovation, but want to emphasise that a more comprehensive framework of climate, ecology and waste opens up much more scope for innovation for positive change.

The opportunities for innovation, new business models and impact investments that give rise to a just transition are much greater than simply insulating buildings and switching to solar/wind and electric cars, which seems to be the focus of much transition-initiatives today. Examples include box schemes that connect organic farmers directly with urban consumers; integrating informal waste pickers into formal recycling value chains; and producing products (such as tiles) in micro-factories from recycled material (such as glass and textiles).

Even with renewable energy and electric cars however, its essential to consider the environmental impact of their value chains, such as the impacts from resource extraction for inputs (cobalt, lithium), and the end-of-life of solar and turbine equipment and EV batteries, to insure more sustainable resource extraction techniques and appropriate end-of life management approaches and recycling.

It is through this theoretical understanding and consequent differentiation of the concepts of environment and climate change that we have come to recognise circular economies as the most appropriate and all-encompassing framework for guiding the transition to environmentally sustainable and resilient regions.

This is because the 3 tenets of a circular economy are:

1- Regenerate (biodiversity, ecosystems and soil health through responsible mining and agro-ecological and regenerative agriculture).

2- Reutilise all the non-biodegradable material in the economy in closed loop systems of production consumption and distribution that generate zero waste and pollution.

3- Reduce the quantity of virgin material extracted from the earth by decoupling economic growth and development from intensive resource extraction.

Regenerating our natural systems and soil health would significantly increase the carbon absorptive capacity of our planet, significantly mitigating risks of climate change. It would also regenerate natural systems for adapting to adverse weather events like floods and hurricanes. Many of the processes and outcomes associated with aligning to the 3 tenets of a circular economy are indeed climate-positive; they offer impact across climate, ecology and waste.

Many governments are developing national and municipal platforms (investments, incentives and regulations) for a circular economy transition. UrbanEmerge is currently assessing the current status and options for accelerating a circular economy transition in Qatar (working with our client, the Green Growth and Governance Initiative - GGGI). What is evident is that the government has the power to shape its future economy to be circular, together with society, businesses and civic organisations. By applying an inclusion lens to our investment and policy recommendations, we hope to align our recommendations with a just transition.

Carbon free circular economies offer the framework we need to address our environmental crisis. But how do we integrate an inclusion lens to our framework and recommendations?

We begin by reminding ourselves what the purpose of this transition is ultimately sustainable development. The process of so many people and organisations (public, civic and governmental) engaging with circular economy across all sectors is ultimately development (not mitigating and adapting to climate change, which is only part of development, albeit an important one).

A circular economy must therefore be preceded by a broader framework, and that, we believe, is a framework of inclusive and sustainable development.

Environmentally sustainable development we believe can be achieved by co-creating resilient and circular inter-connected regional economies through a shared framework of climate, ecology and waste.

What about inclusion? Surely the transition to a circular economy is complex enough!

We believe inclusion and sustainability form a twin-lens without which we cannot achieve a just transition.

We have come to conceptualise of inclusion as a ‘platform for development’ that enables:

  • Equitable access to and meaningful influence over decisions that affect people and organisations (from urban planning to economic regulations and industrial policy)

  • Equitable access to income generating opportunities for all (good jobs and entrepreneurship), and

  • Equitable access to products, infrastructure and services for a dignified life, healthy living and personal/spiritual development.

This broader framework is shaping our research for the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA) on options to incentivise and finance zero-carbon buildings in Nigeria. Our interviews with experts reveal a need (and demand by Nigerian sustainability experts) to broaden the perspective of emerging green building institutions such as EDGE to include inclusion (equitable access to training and affordable housing), ecology (source local sustainable materials) and waste (end-of-life strategy) to their current focus on renewable energy (namely solar) and energy efficient buildings and appliances.

At UrbanEmerge we consider our framework for inclusive and sustainable development and a just transition as our most important innovation guiding all our work for clients who care deeply about their impacts on people and the environment.


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