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Centering Health in a Just Transition – Paving Way for Health-based Climate Actions in Global Climate Negotiations

By guest contributors Shweta Narayan and Laalitha Surapaneni 

As the dust settles on the outcomes of the recently held international climate negotiations – the 28th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai, UAE, a prevailing sentiment of dissatisfaction looms over the global community, echoing the urgency of addressing climate change. The collective efforts and commitments fall short of the immediacy demanded by the escalating climate crisis. However, amid the apparent shortcomings, a significant point emerged—the agreement on a just transition away from fossil fuels. Amid the climate discourse, the term “Just Transition” has taken center stage, representing a commitment to incorporate social justice in the economic and environmental discourse. As we navigate through the aftermath of COP28, it becomes imperative to critically examine the nuances and implications of this phrase – Just Transition, recognizing its potential as a transformative force in shaping an equitable future.

In recent years, the idea of a Just Transition has gained prominence in global discussions on climate action and socio-economic transformation. Various stakeholders, including labor movements, environmental justice groups, multilateral institutions, investors, and corporations, have contributed diverse perspectives on issues such as workers’ rights, community impact, and economic considerations. However, a critical examination reveals a notable gap—the lack of a health-focused approach. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness of ecological health and human well-being, emphasizing the urgent need for a holistic examination of the Just Transition framework.

The Evolution of Just Transition: From Labor Movements to Global Climate Agreements

The origins of the Just Transition concept trace back to the late 1970s, when the U.S. Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union advocated for workers facing job threats due to environmental regulations. Over the years, the concept evolved, incorporating environmental justice perspectives, and becoming a foundational element in climate justice discourse by the late 1990s. International bodies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank adopted and expanded on the principles of Just Transition, emphasizing its significance in sustainable development. The Paris Agreement in 2015 and subsequent climate conferences reaffirmed the commitment to overseeing the workforce’s requirements during the transition, acknowledging the potential for increased inequalities. COP26 in Glasgow witnessed an ambitious Just Transition declaration, highlighting the commitment to an equitable shift towards a climate-resilient future followed by COP27 in Egypt formally establishing a Just Transition Work Program to closely work with countries in defining the discourse. However, despite these milestones, a critical analysis reveals gaps in addressing the health dimension of the transition.

Exploring “Just” in the Just Transition Narrative

As the discussion on understanding the “just” in the Just Transition progresses, it is increasingly important that any transition must engage with a diverse set of stakeholders like the workers, communities, indigenous populations, women and children, and young people.

An economically just transition involves acknowledging local economic disruptions, providing alternative employment and skills training, restoring sustainable practices, ensuring community health and environmental monitoring, remediating contaminated sites, and addressing health impacts at the cost of polluting companies. It should prioritize social investments, public infrastructure, and upgrade existing facilities with a focus on community ownership and participatory management.

A socially just transition commits to ending exploitation, empowering communities, and fostering inclusivity. It prioritizes healthcare accessibility, community well-being, challenges gender norms, ensures pay parity, contests power structures, and addresses mental health impacts. Anticipating dislocation and migration, it invests in low-carbon healthcare infrastructure, reducing emissions, and promoting local health solutions. 

Finally, a Just Transition acknowledges and addresses the impact on Indigenous communities, addressing historical and cultural injustices, preserving identities, repairing ecosystems, and empowering affected communities. It aims to shift from extractive cultures, empowering marginalized populations to lead discussions and explore decentralized, low-carbon economic options. This approach creates a blueprint for a transition that not only mitigates environmental harm but also advances societal equity, ensuring equitable sharing of the benefits of a sustainable future. Embracing health as a medium for social justice, the Just Transition framework becomes a powerful tool for reshaping societies and economies toward inclusivity and resilience.

Incorporating Health into the Just Transition Narrative

The climate crisis, exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels, poses a significant threat to all aspects of life, from air and water quality to food security and shelter. Recognizing this, the Just Transition framework must evolve to explicitly include health considerations.

In developing a Just Transition away from fossil fuels, it’s crucial to dispel assumptions that a clean energy future will automatically be just. A strong framework must actively address societal injustices impacting planetary health, committing to end economic and social disparities during the transition. Rather than just shifting energy sources, it should intentionally dismantle prevalent economic, environmental, and social injustices in the fossil fuel industry. For instance, transitioning all vehicles to electric may seem like a quick climate solution, but it overlooks health impacts, environmental issues, and transportation access disparities. By dismantling oppressive structures and prioritizing justice, the framework can pave the way for a truly equitable future, where change burdens are collective, and benefits are shared inclusively. Under such a framework, our transportation system would include safe active transportation systems like walk and bike paths, accessible electrified mass transit, and a robust public electric vehicle infrastructure for better healthcare access in remote areas.

Health is a focal point through which we can not only measure the success of the transition but also rectify historical and systemic injustices. By placing health at the core of the transition, we acknowledge the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, and social well-being. The framework must actively work to ensure that the burdens of pollution, health hazards, and economic inequalities are lifted from communities that have historically borne the brunt of fossil fuel exploitation.  This is why the health framework is also crucial to avoiding false solutions. A major source of dissatisfaction during the COP28 discussions was from one word: “abatement”. As it becomes increasingly clear that fossil fuel powered energy is the main driver of climate change, the fossil fuel industry has come up with a new solution to keep their business alive. Enter “abatement”- the latest technique through which the industry promises us that they will capture the planet-warming CO2 from oil and gas, and thus make them climate-friendly. However, a health framework shows us that a fossil fuel-based energy system is reliant on disproportionate health impacts displaced onto often low-income communities, communities of color, children, and the elderly. 

In addressing climate urgency, the Just Transition framework offers hope. To enhance its effectiveness, we must integrate a health-centric perspective for a comprehensive, equitable transition. This approach prioritizes environmental protection and the well-being of workers, communities, and vulnerable populations. Achieving a Just Transition for a healthy planet demands a paradigm shift, acknowledging the interconnectedness of ecological sustainability, public health, and social justice. It’s time to forge a path that mitigates climate impact and fosters a resilient, inclusive, and healthier future. 

About the Authors:

Shweta Narayan coordinates the Global Climate and Health Campaign for Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international NGO in 81 countries dedicated to making health care available and environmentally sustainable.  She facilitates HCWH’s health professional mobilization initiatives and coordinates staff activities and strategic campaign planning.  She is based in India and has over two decades of experience advocacy and community organizing experience on environmental justice issues. Her work focuses on providing legal, media and scientific research support to the residents of polluted communities and workers exposed to toxic chemicals.

Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni (MD, MPH) is a practicing physician at the University of Minnesota with a public health degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dr. Surapaneni has co-authored white papers on health harms of fossil fuel infrastructure, provided testimony to the Minnesota legislature on numerous occasions, served on the Department of Transportation’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council in a governor-appointed role, and regularly speaks with media outlets about health equity impacts of climate change.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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