- Along with achieving mitigation-linked targets, there is also a need to address the vulnerabilities of communities at the centre of India’s climate agenda, as the number of people in vulnerabilities is said to increase, according to IPCC’s latest report.
- To effectively implement a just transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, it is vital to map the systems that exist, interact and function with a degree of linkage to the conventional fossil-based ecosystem.
- The lack of institutional and regulatory clarity in governing the transition away from coal, and the green jobs largely ignoring the existing core structural issues and inequalities with employment in general, are two major challenges in just transition that need to be addressed.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
At the climate conference COP26, held in November 2021 at Glasgow, for the first time a “Just Transition Declaration” was agreed and signed by some of the participating countries. The objective was to leave no one behind in the transition to net-zero economies. Even though India has not signed the declaration yet, it will have to sooner or later.
In this regard, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put forth a five-pronged climate strategy in the form of immediate targets for 2030 and a net-zero commitment by 2070 at COP26.
The recent developments including the climate centricity of Union Budget 2022 and the Green Hydrogen Policy 2022, are clear indications of the intent with which the Government of India is working to realise the vision of the five-pronged climate action agenda. However, the recently released 6th Assessment Report by Working Group II of IPCC provides a critical reality check. The report suggests that approximately 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in contexts of extreme vulnerability, with the number expected to rise in the absence of anticipatory adaptation efforts.
Thus, an already uphill task of achieving mitigation-linked targets, becomes even more complicated with the rising need for addressing the vulnerabilities of communities at the centre of India’s climate agenda.
Globally, and in the national context, the term “just transition” is gaining traction and is poised as a tool that solves the complicated puzzles of mitigation and adaptation. It alludes importance to climate justice, which implies accounting for the needs of the people at the margins of vulnerability as a procedural element of any transition and not merely as a co-benefit or secondary objective.
Questions that need to be answered in the just transition to clean energy
The clarion call by IPCC for immediate efforts to realise the 1.5°C scenario, implies that it is high time we institutionalise the concept of just transition in our thinking, planning, policy, and implementation. In the path to achieving that, some pertinent questions remain unanswered and require deep assessment.
Are we mapping the scope of transition appropriately? How prepared are India’s existing institutions to tackle the developments pertaining to the energy transition? Will the livelihood concerns be addressed by the mere substitution of coal jobs with renewables? How do we actually go about implementing a just transition strategy?
“What’s measured can be effectively managed,” holds true for public policy decisions. In the context of the energy transition, the measurement pertains to gauging the various systems that will be impacted by a shift away from a fossil-dependent energy generation scenario towards a low-carbon scenario. These systems include coal-based regions, local economies, communities, mining companies, power generation plants, and the entire economic ecosystem that develops to cater to such enterprises.
These systems provide the necessary support for survival and livelihood to various workers and communities dependent on such coal-fired plants thus creating an economic ecosystem in and around the plant. For instance, the brick-kiln industries, which use fly-ash as the raw material for bricks, employ workers from the nearby villages. Most of these workers are women. The work is considered as unskilled, but it provides them with a source of revenue.
Induced employment that is generated, needs to be captured in this ambit of the transition. In order to effectively manage the transition and ensure that it is just, it is vital to map the systems that exist, interact and function with a degree of linkage to the conventional fossil-based ecosystem. An interactive framework that accommodates interaction between biodiversity systems, the human society, and climate change, has been advocated as the way forward, by the IPCC in its latest report.
Another fallout of managing thermal power plants emanates from the lack of institutional and regulatory clarity in governing the transition away from coal. It has been observed that the relevant authorities act in an ad-hoc manner when it comes to decommissioning coal-based plants. While the closure of the NTPC Badarpur plant was driven by EPCA with a push from the Supreme Court, the decommissioning of the Durgapur Thermal Station was implemented by power utility (DVC) under the aegis of Central Electricity Authority (CEA). Recently, efforts have been made to chart out a framework for decommissioning of coal-fired thermal plants. These stemmed from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) when in “Dharmesh Shah vs Union of India”, it directed Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to prepare the guidelines for decommissioning of coal/lignite powered thermal power plants. However, the guidelines seem like a snapshot from the 2004 industry-funded report by the US-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), titled “Decommissioning Handbook for Coal-Fired Power Plants”, which sums up the argument against preparedness of policy regime to manage the energy transition underway.
Will green jobs address the existing inequalities in the sector?
There is a misconceived notion regarding the employment aspect of the clean energy transition. While numerical gameplay projects clean energy as a resort for creating green jobs, there are more important challenges that remain unnoticed in the public domain. These pertain to the subjective and qualitative attributes of the jobs hanging by a thread owing to transition and the jobs that are likely to fill in for the soon-to-be-irrelevant ones in conventional sectors. The discourse is green-plated and largely ignores core structural issues with employment in general. It has frequently been highlighted that most of the industrial work in India is of below optimal quality, does not support sustainable livelihoods, and is exploitative in many ways. Without structurally addressing these historically prevalent and deeply rooted concerns, the new jobs are more likely to be plagued with the same issues in one way or the other.
It is disheartening to note that the aspirations of the most marginal communities associated with, say, a thermal power plant, are mostly constrained to minuscule increments in their wages. This is rigidified by the daunting reality which seems to be guiding the popular opinion that “any job is better than no job”. The ideal scenario where jobs are sought to avail a dignified life and have a sense of purpose seems to be beyond the imagination of a major chunk of these workers because even bare survival has become a luxury for them. Can new jobs in renewable energy space address this? The answer seems to be missing, if not a no.
Policymakers need to do more to hear the actual voices of people that are likely to be hard hit because of this clean energy shift. Steering clear of any debates concerning coal phase-out is not an option anymore. The challenges of the existing regime of policy, planning, and livelihoods are structural and behavioural in nature, and addressing them is much needed for ensuring climate justice.
Kumer Singh and Sarthak Shukla are public policy professionals who are working on issues around sustainable development and just transitions.
Banner image: Jharia Coal mine with smoke and burning embers coming from the underground coal field fire. Photo by Abhishek Singh/ Wikimedia Commons.