Centering Justice in Just Energy Transition: Perspectives

Blog Post
April 10, 2024

Table of Contents

Introduction: Justice and the Climate-Energy Challenge, by Martha Molfetas

How do you center justice in the global climate and energy transition? This question, missing in many global forums, became integral to New America’s workshop this February, Dissecting the Myth of Just Energy Transition. The workshop underscored the importance of embedding justice into our climate and energy solutions. Failing to do so will exacerbate existing insecurities, leaving us collectively worse off politically, financially, and socially. 

The perspectives articulated here each address that question from different angles, based on the authors’ unique lived, academic, and professional experiences—discussing effects on communities from Brazil to Zimbabwe as well as the macro-economic and political changes this transition will be predicated upon. As Matthew Hoffmann, Kamila Camilo, Farai Maguwu, and Alvin Camba each share, the transition will be about far more than increasing the number of electric vehicles (EVs). It will be about creating a successful marriage between our sustainable development goals and the intersectional challenges of our climate reality and energy paradigms. We cannot do one without the other. Fossil fuels alone produced 75% of all global emissions ever. Meanwhile, the critical resources required for our energy transition exist within communities historically marginalized by colonialism. Co-beneficial interrelationships will become integral to the work ahead. It may even require dismantling systems that no longer serve communities, as Kamila Camilo suggests. We have the tools to create a future that leaves future generations “the capacity to be as well off as we are today,” to use Robert Solow’s definition of sustainability. All that is missing is the political and financial will to make it happen. 

Global forums often have a strong focus on high-level stakeholders and macro indicators by design—omitting how actual people will be impacted by agendas, particularly around justice. And yet people everywhere are impacted by these decisions. The political and financial will to act must meet our historic moment. Over the last 40 years, there has not been a colder than average year. In 2022, the United States alone saw 28 climate-fueled disasters, each causing well over $1 billion in damages. A business as usual approach is estimated to cost the world $1.26 quadrillion in damages by 2100—that’s roughly twelve times today’s total global market capital. Not to mention the upending of lives and the toll on livelihood resources. In response, our body politic has oscillated from denial in the 1990s to quiet acceptance in the 2010s to climate nihilism for many today.

This doesn’t have to be our reality: the transition to net-zero could create 14 million new jobs by 2030 and add roughly $43 trillion to the global economy by 2070, while averting these worst consequences. We cannot afford to ignore our climate reality and the impacts facing communities, or the necessary and dramatic energy changes we must make.

So too, we cannot turn a blind eye to how justice is integral and necessary to our energy transition. Without justice, the energy transition and our climate responses will exacerbate existing insecurities and inequities—leaving us all worse off. And yet, as our authors share from their myriad of perspectives, when we center justice in climate and energy solutions, we are all better off. The perspectives below each aim to reflect these challenges and opportunities, face the injustices communities are enduring head on, and provide a path forward.

Why, not How, to Center Justice, by Matthew Hoffmann

The obstacles to centering justice in the energy transition are formidable. 

Those demanding justice are relatively marginalized—politically, socially, and economically. They are people who are facing the consequences of a climate catastrophe they had little hand in causing; people who experience the costs of fossil energy extraction more than the benefits; people who often rightly fear that they will suffer the downsides of an energy transition rather than reap its rewards when their jobs are lost or communities polluted.

The financial system is stacked against them when return on investment is the dominant value, and risk means risk to shareholders and capital—not humanity and ecological sanity. Politics are stacked against them because the interests and coalitions that support our fossil-energy status quo are powerful and unlikely to go quietly. 

The how of centering justice is daunting. And yet, I remain hopeful that it can and will be done—not so much because I have figured out how it can be done, but because I am confident that more and more people are grasping why it must be done. 

Centering justice is the only morally palpable way forward. Those who have suffered the costs and harms of our current carbon-centric energy and economic systems must not be asked to also suffer the costs of the transition to a low carbon world.

Politically, we may be tempted to think sublimating equity and justice to economic growth, financial returns, and top-down technological solutions to the low carbon future would be best. The promise here is the efficiency of working with rather than seeking to disrupt status quo interests and powers. Yet, the status quo needs disrupting. 

Considering the depth and speed of the transformation required for the necessary energy transition, wide and deep public support will be necessary to generate and sustain it within and across countries. Centering justice, as a means of inspiring public support and commitment, may be the most politically expedient path to the kind of massive energy transition we need.

So how to center justice flows from why to center justice. Organizations and politicians—locally, nationally, and globally—that are serious about effective, transformative change in the energy transition should work to intertwine justice and climate across discourse, action, and policy. Ingraining the idea that justice and energy transition are inseparable may facilitate building powerful social movements and coalitions that see themselves better off through transition and in the decarbonized future. A focus on justice and equity holds the promise that those currently marginalized, along with broad swaths of societies, champion a compelling vision of a good life in the transition to a low carbon world.

A Just Energy Transition Means Embracing Radical Change, by Kamila Camilo

Why are we clinging to a broken system instead of embracing radical transformation and actively seeking new solutions?

I remember my first time visiting the Yawanawá people close to the borders between Brazil and Peru. The local chief shared the story of the day his father, as a young boy, burned Bibles and expelled the evangelical missionaries who had been there for so long. The missionaries had made the Yawanawá people stop speaking their language and prohibited them from following their traditions. The evangelicals almost erased the Yawanawá language from the earth with colonial war tactics: they went to the villages sick, but carrying modern medicine, so when villagers became sick, they could offer the cure. But one day a little boy said, “This is enough.” He went door to door, picking up the Bibles, and burned them all. 

Sometimes, we need to break completely with a system that oppresses us. We can't save fossil fuel companies and their shareholders, and at the same time save the people who are most affected by climate change. 

We cannot effect change by adhering to the status quo. We are often dominated by economic concerns, but it's time to prioritize a just transition for society as a whole. Regrettably, the focus has been on facilitating a transition that preserves the profitability of the same groups, like the corporations that have profited from fossil fuels or the few investors who have a monopoly on the food industry. Relying solely on financial results is no longer sufficient to ensure a sustainable and equitable future.

Creating a just transition requires decision-makers from large global corporations, governments, and philanthropic institutions to recognize that the well-being of our planet is a long-term investment, and the financial returns are not immediate. The preservation of forests and the phaseout of fossil fuel use are today's most urgent needs, and this urgency will only increase.

Developed economies must take on the responsibility of investing in research, creating solutions, and developing a clean energy matrix that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. They should support developing countries in this endeavor, because it is the corporations of developed economies that have led us to our current situation.

A portion of the world lacks basic necessities like electricity and water, let alone access to fossil fuels. The energy transition process must be “toward an other globalization,” one that, as Brazilian geographer Milton Santos suggests, leaves no one behind and is both popular and democratic. We can achieve this by intentionally involving those most affected in co-creating  and implementing solutions. But to accomplish all those things, the first step is to recognize we live in a global crisis and to be open to dialogue, especially when the shareholders knock on the door urging for more financial results to the detriment of the environment and social justice.

Zimbabwe’s Communities are Paying the Price for the Just Energy Transition, by Farai Maguwu

Zimbabwe’s lithium, known as “white gold,” has sparked a rush, attracting fortune seekers from subsistence-level miners to international investors. As Africa’s top producer of lithium, Zimbabwe is expected to meet 20% of the world’s lithium demand in 2024, with reported earnings of $209 million from lithium sales during the first nine months of 2023 alone. Chinese companies invested $1.4 billion in 2022–2023, with potentially twice that sum to come, based on licenses awarded at the end of 2023. 

On the surface, it's all good: Zimbabwe is contributing to the just energy transition by supplying one of the most critical components of EV batteries. However, a closer look at communities where mining is taking place paints a darker picture. Displacements, intimidation, water grabbing, unfair labor practices, and human rights abuses are the defining characteristics of lithium mining in Zimbabwe. 

In Buhera, one of Zimbabwe’s poorest and driest districts, Chengxin Lithium Group, a Chinese investor, claims to be investing $130 million into developing the Sabi Star mine, also known as Max Mind Mine, while displacing about 40 families from their ancestral land for a paltry payment of $1,900 each, paying $1,000 upfront and the remainder in monthly installments of $150. The dead were not spared either, as the Centre for Natural Resource Governance learned during a field visit to Sabi Star in November 2023. Under the new management, Sabi Star dug up an unquantified number of graves and reburied the remains in a new settlement, causing trauma to some families, who started mourning their loved ones again. Sabi Star offered no counseling or psychosocial support. 

While Sabi Star built homesteads for displaced families, the buildings were substandard and showed cracks in walls only months old, and the mining company refused to replace the water boreholes and granaries it had destroyed. Women found themselves walking longer distances to fetch water for domestic chores, despite having invested in drilling boreholes at their homesteads. Sabi Star is also building a 15 megawatt thermal power station in the village, bringing heavy air pollution to this community when complete. The coal will be transported by railway from Hwange to Odzi, then by haulage trucks, which will create land and dust pollution. The company has not disclosed any plans to share the electricity with the energy-poor surrounding villages. 

Southwest of Sabi Star is the Bikita Minerals mine, owned and run by Sinomine, another big Chinese lithium miner. The Bikita community is up in arms after Sinomine grabbed water and land from the neighboring village and blocked the community from accessing the water source they have used for decades. Women caught “trespassing” and “stealing” water by the mine security are forced to pour it to the ground. Violence has been used against lithium artisanal miners. In March 2023, a security guard shot and killed a subsistence miner named Darlington Vito, who was looking through a pile of rubble outside the mine in the hope of finding ore. His family lacks the resources to pursue legal action, and no criminal charges have been filed.

Lithium mining is bringing billions of dollars of investment to Zimbabwe. The government is presenting it as a blessing to the nation, but communities have a different story. “Environmental degradation and sexual exploitation of women and girls has become rife,” said Mountain Mujakachi, the Director of the Bikita Institute of Land Development. “Our lives were better under the previous investor,” a German company, said Mujakachi, than under the current investors, “who are abusive, corrupt, and insensitive to our basic rights, such as the right to safe and clean water.” They feel resource-cursed, arguing that their lives would be much better had lithium not been discovered in their villages.

How Can Governments Center Justice in Our Just Energy Transition?, by Alvin Camba

How can governments deal with transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables in the context of a market-oriented global economy? This was one of the most gripping questions that came from the workshop. Effective government action hinges on three major issues.

First, significant capital resources—direct investments, government budget allocation, and subsidies—are all crucial to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, government funding has been curtailed, partly due to inward-looking populist policies and fossil fuel lobbyist interests. These difficulties are products of both the downsizing of government activities and the so-called “neoliberal” transition, which drove privatization, deregulation, and liberalization. As a result, government funding to key activities, like lending finance to develop renewable energy, expanding research, and increasing climate literacy, has become more limited and precarious. What steps can the U.S. government take to ensure a greater economic and political role in energy transition? A crucial action would be to make environmental policies more difficult to reverse, ensuring the continuity of funding towards key programs. 

Second, geostrategic competition with China looms large. China has been the largest financier of renewable energy in the Global South, by and large, due to their political-economic model that directly finances state-owned enterprises and prioritizes foreign relations. Chinese renewable energy companies are investing in solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. Chinese EVs are budget-friendly to the average Global South citizen. In contrast, the U.S. model of finding “bankable” projects has been a problem for many Global South countries. While the U.S. government has refused to fund coal-related projects, many American equity firms and investment banks still invest in coal-fired power plants overseas. The U.S. government should balance accessibility to finance and investments toward renewable energy, as well as develop measures to curtail private sector actors from investing in fossil fuels.

And finally, the clean energy transition is occurring in the context of the Global South’s demand for economic development. While the Global North is empowering renewable energy and increasing the usability of EVs, these activities are built on resource extraction from the Global South, which comes with social and environmental justice implications. For instance, the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, a joint venture between a Chinese firm and an Indonesian firm, has become one of the largest exporters of pig nickel iron and ferronickel, both crucial to renewable energy infrastructure. However, the base resources in both commodities, particularly laterite and sulfide nickels, are extracted from mining concessions surrounding Indonesian kampungs (villages). While the Indonesian government has jumped the value chain in the nickel sector and increased their smelted nickel exports, the socio-environmental effects in Sulawesi have been immense. Sulawesi’s increased forest cover loss in the last five years has led to intense floods and rainfalls. Cancer rates are on the rise, and marine life pollution has surged. Governments should ensure—because private industry will not—that the energy transition occurs according to the principles of social and environmental justice, rather than market principles or a race to the bottom that kills communities.