‘Justice’ will be a key topic at COP27, as the activists, experts and governments tackle the urgent crisis of climate change. Apocalyptic fires and floods, droughts, cyclones and hurricanes have become the new normal with devastating impacts for humanity and nature. Those that have contributed least to global emissions, particularly in the global South, continue to suffer the worst impacts.
Actions to ensure a ‘just transition’ will be at the top of many agendas. How can we ensure that pathways to more environmentally sustainable economies also lead to greater social justice? To achieve this, an expansive definition of justice is needed, going much beyond ‘do no harm’ to address historical power imbalances and structural inequalities, including gender inequality.
The idea of a ‘just transition’, historically rooted in worker struggles, is about creating a ‘green and equal’ future. There are many different interpretations of a just transition, ranging from approaches that seek to ‘green’ capitalism, through green investments in sectors like renewable energy and transport, to more transformative approaches that seek to overhaul existing economic and political structures, to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability as twin objectives. These wildly different interpretations have often led to confusion over what is at stake.
A feminist vision for justice
A key part of a just transition must surely be the pursuit of ‘justice’, but what does this really mean? The most common interpretation of justice in the context of a ‘just transition’ refers to ensuring economic security for those who will lose jobs in the transition away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries. This narrow conceptualisation of justice seeks to ensure that the transition, at a minimum, ‘does no harm’ to those whose jobs (primarily in the formal sector) are at risk. However, focusing only on job losses fails to address deeply embedded social and economic inequalities that may be exacerbated without specific attention.
A more expansive and transformative view of justice, informed by feminist theories of justice, would include redistributive justice and recognitive justice as interlinked objectives, underpinned by participative justice. A focus on redistribution as part of a just transition would ensure policies challenge existing and historical structural inequalities and seek to redistribute power and resources within and between countries. It would also seek to ensure that the costs and benefits of the transition are equally distributed. For example, a focus on redistribution in a just transition would ensure that ‘green investments’ do not contribute to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few in the name of environmental sustainability. Recognitive justice entails recognising all the rights and interests of everyone with a stake in a sustainable future, particularly marginalised groups. Attention to recognitive justice as part of a just transition would, for example, recognise the rights of Indigenous peoples and place value on their traditional knowledge and relationship to the natural environment. Representation or participative justice is also critical—this would entail a focus on the meaningful and equal participation of all affected groups, particularly marginalised groups, in the transition.
An expansive view of justice is particularly important for a ‘gender just’ transition to ensure that the structural gender inequalities embedded in social and economic life are addressed as an essential part of efforts to achieve environmental sustainability. For example, a gender just transition would aim to improve the quality and conditions of women’s jobs as well as reduce and redistribute women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work: undervalued and invisible work which undergirds all economies. A focus on intersectionality would bring to the fore inequalities within groups, for example the specific experiences of rural women or Indigenous women, and ensure their voices are heard and heeded in the effort to advance environmental sustainability.
Policy change that is 'green and gender just': the example of agriculture
An expansive view of justice can underpin policies that deliver both ‘green’ and ‘gender just’ outcomes. For example, women play a hugely significant role in agriculture and food systems. Women small holder farmers are the backbone of food security and are more likely to use agroecological approaches, increasingly recognised as an effective approach for greater sustainability in agriculture. However, women are concentrated in the most vulnerable forms of informal work, which is often unpaid. Further, the interactions between environmental change and social inequalities present significant barriers for women in agriculture, as climate change-induced crop failures become more commonplace and insecure land tenure denies women access to rights and resources.
In this context, a focus on distributive and recognitive justice really matters. ‘Green’ does not automatically mean ‘just’. It is under the rubric of ‘green growth’ that we have witnessed land grabbing in developing countries by corporate investors for the cultivation of agrofuels, with women’s land often targeted. ‘Green’ investments in new technologies are mostly targeted at industrial agriculture as a way to maximise corporate profits, rather than to bolster the contribution of small holder farmers to global food security. The expansion of palm oil plantations as a source of renewable in parts of South East Asia has displaced Indigenous people from their ancestral lands and destroyed local biodiversity and livelihoods, compounding historical marginalisation and dispossession.
What would a green and gender just alternative for agriculture look like? Firstly, power and resources need to be redistributed to give women equal access, including to land rights, and equal access to resources and technology to upscale agroecological innovations. Secondly, women’s smallholders’ organisations have emphasised the importance of decentralised and collectively controlled water and energy supply, protecting biodiversity, and valuing local knowledge, as well as a ban on land grabbing and regulation of financial markets to end speculation on yields and food prices. Finally, ensuring the protection of common lands and resources is critical as a key source of food, income and survival for women in poor communities.
In any transition, there will be tensions and trade-offs to negotiate. This is where paying attention to participative justice matters. The example of the cut flower sector in Kenya illustrates these dilemmas. The growing focus on environmental sustainability in the sector has largely focused on climate change adaptation to protect flower yields, rather than addressing the decimation of local ecosystems and commons driven by the growth of the flower sector. While ensuring that flower yields are maintained, which protects jobs, the long-term threats to the environment through biodiversity loss and the livelihoods of many other women dependent on common resources is neglected in the name of environmental policy action. The only way to navigate these tensions is to ensure a policymaking process that is transparent and based on genuine consultation and participation not only through formal unions, but of broader community groups and interests as well.
A just transition will also have to be global in scale, recognising the potential ripple effect of actions across countries. In this context, distributive justice must also pay attention to inequalities between countries. Economically privileged populations, primarily in developed countries, have benefitted the most from high carbon growth, while marginalised women, primarily in developing countries, have contributed least to climate change but stand to lose the most from its effects. Further, the scaling back of particular sectors in the Global North may have negative short-term impacts on women workers in the Global South and marginalised workers more broadly. As such, a just transition must focus on levelling the playing field between developed and developing countries to avoid replicating colonial patterns and the entrenchment of inequalities between countries.
What do we value? What is the economy for?
As well as a more expansive view of justice, creating a green and gender just future requires a fundamental shift in how the economy is organised and what is valued and measured. The economic structures and power dynamics that have contributed to the current environmental crisis—including unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, extractivism, unsustainable wealth accumulation, fossil fuel industries and militarism—have been underpinned by the use of GDP as the sole measure of success. This has led feminist economists to ask: what is the economy for? A just transition requires a sufficiency economy to provision ‘enough’ for the care of people and planet, within a framework that changes the relationship between people and the environment. This means moving away from the idea that the natural environment should serve the interests of human beings to viewing ourselves as part of the natural environment. In this much needed new understanding, human and ecological well-being would be the ultimate measures of success.
Somali Cerise is a global gender equality and human rights expert and the IGD Gender and Just Transitions project co-lead with Dr Sarah Cook. She has been responsible for several major global initiatives, including the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index, UN Women's Global Report on Gender Equality and the Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN Secretary General's 20- and 25-year reviews of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In 2021, Somali led the team at the Australian Human Rights Commission conducting the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. She currently works on a range of gender equality initiatives with Elizabeth Broderick & Co, the Champions of Change Coalition, UN Women, and the University of Sydney.
Laura Turquet is a Policy Advisor and Deputy Chief of Research and Data at UN Women. For the past 13 years, she has worked at UN Women leading major research and data initiatives that inform the organisation's advocacy objectives and empower civil society and governments to seek and implement change, including most recently Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice. Laura leads the organisation's flagship report, Progress of the World's Women, and has co-authored three editions on women's access to justice, women's economic empowerment and women's rights in families. She is a co-founder of the UN Feminist Network and previously worked at ActionAid UK, the Institute of Development Studies and the Fawcett Society.