What might a ‘just transition’ mean for biodiversity?

Originally posted on Urban Green Adaptation Diary

2021 is a big year for international climate change science and policy. The next United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP26, is due to be held in Glasgow in November. At COP26, it is hoped that the countries of the world will agree on legally-binding measures to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. This year will also see more outputs released as part of the sixth assessment cycle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body responsible for synthesising the latest peer-reviewed climate change science.

What is perhaps less well acknowledged in the popular media and societal discourse, however, is that biodiversity has its own parallel set of processes. The UN Biodiversity Conference is scheduled to meet in Kunming, China, in October to agree a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. There is also an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body which assesses the state of biodiversity and the benefits it provides to people through an ongoing work programme of thematic assessments.

There is nevertheless growing recognition that climate change and biodiversity are deeply interconnected. A changing climate will have profound implications for biodiversity, and healthy ecosystems could have a big part to play in society’s response to climate change through their role in sequestering carbon and reducing the impact of extreme events such as flooding and heatwaves. This interconnectedness is reflected in the launch of a joint report released in summer 2021 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which examines the synergies and trade-offs between biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Cherry blossoms growing on the hills above the Japanese former coal-mining city of Yubari

It is against this backdrop of synergy between biodiversity and climate change that a new British Academy-funded project has recently launched, looking at the implications of applying one conceptual tool developed in a climate change context to biodiversity – just transitions. The project team consists of Prof Antonia Layard (University of Bristol); Prof Roger Few (University of East Anglia); Dr Sophia Hatzisavvidou (University of Bath); Dr Laura de Vito (University of the West of England); Dr Leslie Mabon (Open University); Dr Odirilwe Selomane (Stellenbosch Univertsity); Gilles Marciniak (Future Earth); and Hannah Moersberger (EuropaBON); with research support from Adam Marshall (University of Bristol).

The phrase ‘Just Transition’ has its origins in the global labour union movement, where it had at its heart the importance of ensuring that people – and places – reliant on carbon-intensive industries for employment and economic benefit were not disadvantaged as activities incompatible with a zero-carbon society are wound down. More recently, just transitions have come to be understood in a wider sense of ensuring no-one is left behind on the pathway to a sustainable zero-carbon society. Indeed, the IPCC-IPBES joint report acknowledges that although much of the just transition scholarship is associated with climate change, the core just transition concepts may be equally applicable to biodiversity. For example, thinking through issues such as the displacement of people due to expanding protected areas for biodiversity requires us to apply the same mindset as we might for the implementation of zero-carbon energy systems. In both cases, as the IPCC-IPBES report authors argue, taking a just transition approach guides us to consider who the winners and losers will be, and to think about the steps that can be taken to mitigate these inequalities.

In our project, we hope to build on this emerging research need by making sense of what it means to apply just transition thinking to biodiversity issues in practice. To do so, we are going to be working with three case study locations – Bristol in the UK; Cape Town in South Africa; and Yubari in Japan – where we will undertake interview- and policy analysis-based research to assess how actors such as municipal environmental mangers, civil society organisations and communities see the relations between biodiversity, climate change and a just transition. One of the critical questions we are hoping to get under is: what does it mean to approach biodiversity through an explicit just transition lens, rather than a more conventional climate justice lens? The links between justice and urban nature at a local level are well-established, with more and more municipalities (such as Glasgow) connecting climate justice principles with their governance of natural and semi-natural spaces. However, just transitions are taking on ever-more political currency through initiatives such as Scotland’s Just Transition Commission. We hence want to think through where the gaps and slippages might be when we go from thinking about local biodiversity in terms of climate justice to a just transition, and what this might require planners, environmental policy-makers and researchers to do differently. Another issue we’re aiming to touch on, especially through the case of the former coal-mining town of Yubari in Japan, is the role that biodiversity can play in helping to transition places that have been shaped by carbon-intensive industries and activities into more equitable, vibrant and resilient localities.

Returning to the IPCC-IPBES report, bringing biodiversity and just transitions into climate change thinking is a timely issue ahead of COP26. The IPCC-IPBES report authors identify that thus far, countries’ nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement – in other words, the core strategies that will guide national contributions to the global climate effort over the coming decades – pay insufficient attention to biodiversity impacts and to the role of nature-based approaches to climate change. The report is particularly forceful on the lack of attention within countries’ climate pledges to specific details on how biodiversity and human wellbeing can be integrated with the climate change benefits derived from nature-based approaches. Although we won’t be able to resolve all these issues at a global scale within the confines of our project, we would certainly hope that by the end of the twelve months we will be able to say something about how biodiversity links to a just transition to a sustainable zero-carbon society at the local level – which, ultimately, is the scale at which rhetoric on biodiversity, just transitions and climate change are put into practice.

Recently-established wetland in Seaton Park in Aberdeen, the centre of operations for the North Sea oil industry which is seeing more and more visible calls for a just transition.

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