WUR and Just Transitions: Bringing principles into practice

At Wageningen University & Research (WUR), we are working on the main social issues of our time: food insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss, unsustainable production and consumption amongst others. These issues are interrelated. Increasing evidence is emerging that these challenges but also the transition processes and the solutions can have unintended and damaging impacts on some groups of people. They are left behind vulnerable and excluded from the societal transitions that are currently taking place.

WUR and Just Transitions

Justice is an objective pursued by many people that are taking part in transitions. We see the plea for just transition in the Netherlands, and at European and international level. The aim of this WUR KB research project is to support policymakers, practitioners and scientists to put this principle of justice into their transition practices. Within this project, an enthusiastic team is working on a guidance for transition processes that includes questions, methods and approaches for just transitions. The focus is on food system transformation and climate adaptation. Research areas in which WUR is active and where input from various disciplines is relevant.

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Just Transitions

An introduction

Just Transitions

In practice

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How to operationalise just transitions

Insights from dialogues

The types of justice

Although Just Transition is an emerging theme and an increasingly popular and used concept, there is no scientific consensus yet on an all-encompassing definition. That does raise the question if an overall definition is a capital case and even possible. The term justice stems from four main types of justice: recognitional, distributive, procedural and restorative justice. These four types are linked to each other, perhaps partly overlapping. They enhance our understanding and provide a basis for specific insights and, more importantly, for tailored action.

Recognitional justice

Who are those that are affected?

Recognitional justice or recognition justice is about the recognition of groups, communities and individuals (across time and scale) affected directly and indirectly by the transition (Schlosberg, 2004). Recognition not only impliesawareness, but also and respect for different cultures, values and the socio-political context of these groups (Schlosberg, 2004; Whyte, 2011).

Farmers and their communities must play a central role in planning climate action to ensure it is good for farmers as well as the planet.
Case 04: Ireland
  • Recognitional justice is the first step in a just transition and to be repeated throughout (Young, 1990)
  • Participation will only be meaningful when the processes are sensitive to local cultures and empowers the capacities needed to participate (Whyte, 2011).
  • The recognition of the rights of future generations is a key ethical concern of climate justice. Future generations will be most affected by climate catastrophes, but are excluded from the relevant policy-making process. In this way, intergenerational justice is an inherent part of recognition justice, although also part of procedural, distributive and restorative justice.
  • Recognitional justice implies a recognition of the human rights and culture differences across space (Martin et al., 2016). A transition process in one country, may have human rights implications on the other side of the world especially given the globalised supply chains. For example: the transition to renewable energy from solar panels in Europe, has seen an unequal distribution of harms from mining heavy materials and vulnerability to toxic waste (Mulvaney, 2013). Recognition on a global level implies awareness of where in the world all these effects occur and what the implication is on a local level.

Procedural justice

Is every voice heard and has every voice access to take part?

Procedural justice refers to the equity and inclusivity of people in the processes and procedures guiding the transitions (McCauley & Heffron, 2018). Just transition researchers found that procedural justice is key to achievingdistributive justice (McCauley & Heffron, 2018). Only through a democratic process can the many and complex trade-offs between different futures be addressed and can it be supported by a broad range of actors (Newell & Mulvaney, 2013).

Adapting to climate change requires alternative ways of governing environmental issues.
Case 03: Malawi
  • Acting upon the social and political recognition of groups and citizens – including explicit attention to different cultural understandings, values, and priorities concerning loss of resources or ways of life (Nussbaum, 2011). Social and political recognition means recognising that people have the right to control decisions influencing their daily life (Nussbaum, 2011). This leads to both:
    • empowerment of groups where they enjoy autonomy in decision making on matters that effect their daily life, and in which transition objectives are consciously aligned with local goals and initiatives (Bennett et al., 2019).
    • long-term engagement process with affected communities (McCauley & Heffron, 2018). The engagement process is underpinned by transparency and accountability (Bennett et al., 2019)
  • Stakeholders are connected within the process at different scales, both locally and globally, since communities, individuals, companies and institutions are impacted at different scales and need to act upon and restore past harm (restorative justice). A lack of attention to these connections can cause injustices and ecological harm to be replaced, rather than mitigated (Temper et al., 2018).

Distributive justice

How are societal costs and benefits shared?

Distributive or distributional justice emerges as the most common justice concept in the just transitions discourse. It focuses on the distribution of environmental goods, costs and benefits. Distributional justice is not only about direct environmental burdens or benefits, but also about other intersecting dimensions such as vulnerability, need, and responsibility.

The exposure to environmental burdens and access to environmental goods is experienced differently by different socioeconomic groups.
Case 02: Vienna

Distributional justice addresses questions ofaccess to resources and opportunities that aredeemed to be critical to redress social injusticesand adverse effects of accessing environmentalresources.

  • The goal is to actively minimize costs while proactively maximizing benefits that emerge in the transition process.
  • In transition, distributional justice needs to answer the question of, “how do transition processes and outcomes address adverse effects of distribution of environmental benefits?” (Wang et al., 2021).
  • In addition, there is a need to address power and governance, and their impact on distributional justice, at multiple scales. For example, global scale distributions can disproportionally affect contexts that are already vulnerable because the emerging responsibilities and vulnerabilities from the transition process are not equal (Steele et al., 2012).

Restorative justice

How to compensate for the harm done?

At its core, restorative justice aims at repairing adverse, past or foreseen, harm experienced by an individual, group or community as a result of perceived injustice (Forsyth, 2021; McCauley Heffron, 2018). Restoration can take many forms depending on the injustice experienced. Examplesare compensation for carbon emissions, restoration of natural areas, bridging grants to re-employment or retirement, re-training courses, compensation for loss of jobs, harvest, livelihoods, etc. (Kaljonen, 2021).

Disengagement from the coal industry must be accompanied by reparations for human rights violations.
Case 01: Colombia
  • While recognition, procedural and distributive justices are well-established and researched dimensions of social justice and are generally presented as part of a conceptual framework for just transition, restorative justice is not yet established as an independent pillar of just transition.
  • Restorative justice is essential to ensure that those affected are not left behind in the transition. Moreover, the reality is that communities and individuals do not participate in a transition from an equal position, resulting in competing interests. It can therefore be argued that restorative justice is needed to establish a sense of community and equality for a transition process to be effective.