Just Transition to a Green Economy: Lessons of COVID-19

by | Sep 16, 2020 | Alumni, Environment, Global Health, Governance | 0 comments

The Covid-19 pandemic has animated discussions about our future economic development model highlighting current shortcomings and the adverse impacts on people, especially vulnerable groups. In so doing, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of a just transition as we plan for the impacts of our next looming crisis – climate change. The physical impacts of climate change (e.g. damage to buildings and infrastructure from extreme weather events) and the possibility of stranded physical assets (e.g. oil & gas pipelines and reserves) receive more attention than the impacts on people (e.g. stranded workers and communities).

To ensure that no one gets left behind in the transition to a 1.5 degree world, we can take 3 key lessons away from the pandemic.

Lesson 1: Businesses have a responsibility to assess the impacts of their activities on people

A just transition is about the livelihoods of people, especially the most vulnerable. As a result, human rights is a central concept. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) identifies the range of human rights impacted by climate change: life, self-determination, development, food, water, health, sanitation and housing.[1] Without access to decent work, the ability of individuals to enjoy any of these rights is put at risk. While states have a duty to protect human rights and a role to play in the provision of the decent work agenda as seen through employment relief and fiscal stimulus measures during the pandemic, businesses are also critical. In fact, the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business (UNGPs) identifies the role of businesses in upholding the Respect & Remedy pillars of the UNGPs 3 pillar framework[2]. During the pandemic, investors examined how worker health and safety, sick leave, flexible work arrangements, fair wages and job security were being addressed by businesses. In OECD countries, vulnerable groups of workers emerged in essential services such as ethnic minority, front line health care workers in addition to low-wage workers in groceries and manufacturing plants. Similarly, in the transition to a green economy, women, Indigenous Peoples, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are amongst those most at risk of not having access to quality jobs. They are under-represented in growth industries – renewables, utilities, construction and manufacturing. Workers in these industries may be susceptible to human rights abuses. As a result, it is critical for businesses to assess and manage these risks, ensuring they uphold the “do no harm” principle.

Lesson 2: Everyone should have the necessary capacity to adapt

The transition raises questions about equitable access to mitigation and adaptation technologies for people and countries just as the pandemic has done with access to health care technologies and services. The gendered dimensions of access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was not considered, rendering female health care workers more vulnerable to infection. One can imagine equitable access in low and middle-income countries to technologies to fight climate change being put at risk due to cost barriers. A similar issue is currently reported on by the media regularly – the pricing of vaccines.[3] Several OECD countries already have a head start with clean technology development and job creation including the US, Europe and China while Canada aspires to grow this market. However, the countries and people most at risk of the negative impacts of climate change are middle-low income and unskilled to semi-skilled. These same countries are not the exporters of clean technologies. This imbalance must be addressed to ensure people’s livelihoods and countries’ development are not jeopardized with the shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption.

Lesson 3: Early warning systems are critical to understanding vulnerabilities and enabling preparedness

The pandemic has taught us the importance of early warning systems in helping countries assess their risks and prepare, thus protecting people. This is also critical to preparing for a successful transition to the green economy. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) unit was among Canada’s contributions to the World Health Organization (WHO), gathering intelligence and spotting pandemics early; however, as of May 2019 the system was not functioning at full-capacity.[4] Had the GPHIN been working properly, countries may have been able to adopt targeted mitigation strategies to suppress Covid-19 outbreaks, especially low and middle-income ones, which lack the economic resilience to withstand national lockdown measures. Early warning systems, making information available on climate effects and natural disasters, are critical to assess who and where is most vulnerable and to what types of shocks.

The transition to a cleaner and greener economic model concerns countries’ relationship with its people and natural resources. The pandemic foreshadowed some of the adverse impacts on workers and communities that we can expect to see if we are caught unprepared for the transition to a 1.5 degree world.

Senior Advisor on Social Sustainability Issues at Bank of Montreal (BMO) Financial Group

To learn more about a transition that social issues at the heart of the agenda in a post COVID19 world, listen to: Just transition: People & communities along for net-zero carbon economy hosted by UNEP FI

Last year, in a Just Transition to a Canadian Green Economy, I wrote about how successful transitions ensure that vulnerable groups have access to opportunities for decent work and communities experience economic growth (SDG 8) as countries decarbonize.

[1] Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,  https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/COP21.pdf   Last accessed August 17, 2020

[2] The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: An Introduction,  https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Business/Intro_Guiding_PrinciplesBusinessHR.pdf  Last accessed August 17, 2020

[3] Moderna pitches virus vaccine at about $50-60 per course, The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/405c0d07-d15a-4f5b-8a77-3c2fbd5d4c1c   Last accessed August 17, 2020

[4] Without early warning you can’t have early response’: How Canada’s world-class pandemic alert system failed,” The Globe & Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-without-early-warning-you-cant-have-early-response-how-canadas/   Last accessed August 17, 2020


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