TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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Just transitions rest on the horizon where ideas and action collide

TMG is running full steam to use its action-oriented research to craft innovative, grassroots projects and inform global dialogue.

by Jes Weigelt | 2024-02-26

Just transitions rest on the horizon where ideas and action collide

There are six years to go to meet the global goals of sustainable development. More than halfway after their adoption, the outlook is bleak. According to analyses by the UN, only 12% of the targets are on track. It is not because of a lack of knowledge that we do not progress. The analyses are compelling. Major global reports on climate, food security, and sustainable development provide detailed descriptions of the necessary elements of a just transition. 

Inequalities are a key reason why we do not progress faster. Inequalities distort development opportunities and effectively deprive some of the possibility to pursue a path towards leading a healthy and decent life. Inequalities tend to persist and reproduce. There is a clear link between inequalities and policies favouring only a small part of society.  

Transformations that underlie just transitions are, therefore, a cross-cutting theme of our different research programmes. 

Land rights for climate resilience

Our climate policies have a huge implicit land demand to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Current estimates are that National Determined Contributions have an accumulated land demand of more than 1 billion hectares. Land use will need to change on half of that area, for example, to grow forests on grasslands. But these 1 billion hectares are not empty lands. They are both inhabited and form the basis of people’s livelihoods.

Those who emitted the least mustn’t be deprived of their lands to sequester carbon in the name of net-zero policies. Without securing their land rights, carbon projects will undermine the just transition they are intended to serve.

Past UNFCCC COPs made much needed progress in acknowledging the crucial role of Indigenous Peoples as stewards of forests and other biodiverse, carbon-rich landscapes. We need to build on this success and develop an approach for carbon sequestration policies and programmes that strengthen marginalised groups’ land rights. To that end, TMG will continue to learn from the implementation of the UNCCD land tenure decisions and draw conclusions regarding the responsible design and implementation of carbon markets. 

The power of digitalization to secure women’s land rights

In Kenya, as in many other countries, women suffer from frequent land rights violations. These violations often go unrecorded, leaving the women very little opportunity to seek remedy. Together with our partners Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) and Rainforest Foundation UK, we have developed a digital reporting tool to start recording these land rights violations. The tool allows women to record violations of their land rights by making use of feature phones that do not require access to mobile data. It is a way to also address the prevailing digital divides. Kenya Land Alliances uses the aggregated data for their national level advocacy, local KLA chapters offer immediate support to the victims. Our work on digitalization emphasizes that digitalization can indeed be a transformational force. To assume that role, digital tools need to be developed with the specific purpose of transformation in mind. Otherwise, digitalization, risks merely making existing, often unjust, systems more efficient.  

Inclusive policy processes for just transitions

Those who stand to benefit the most from transformation processes are often those who seem the least equipped to shape them. Together with Food Agency Cape Town (FACT) and the University of Western Cape, we are exploring ways to make food security policy processes more inclusive. During the COVID-19 pandemic, community kitchens have emerged as a community driven initiative to provide meals to community members in need. They are an informal social security mechanism. Due to the global cost of living crisis, community kitchens remain a key coping mechanism. Deepened food insecurity gives rise to another pandemic: gender-based violence (GBV). The kitchens also offer safer spaces for GBV victims. Yet, despite of these crucial functions, a number of community kitchens needed to close. Together with FACT, we have therefore piloted different mechanisms to sustain community kitchens. These findings are fed into a discussion forum so that community members can interact with decision makers from the City of Cape Town and the Province of Western Cape. Community driven initiatives are often the core of transformation processes. Scaling them requires new social structures. Inclusive policy processes are key to achieve that.

Relationships between Global South and Global North in shaping transformation processes

There is an ever more vibrant discussion on the relationships between Global South and North. Transformation processes are inherently political, their governance is even more so. What is a possible role of organizations of the Global North in transformation processes in the Global South? Undoubtedly, this role needs to change. Yet, this different, this new role is only slowly taking shape. Further, the multipolar world is a reality of the 21st century; the group of BRICS countries has just become bigger. Therefore, rethinking relationships between Global South and Global North also implies becoming more honest and transparent about the – possibly different – interests in this cooperation. We look at the governance of food system transformation processes to discuss these questions.

Allocation of costs and benefits of transformation

One of the key questions of transformation is the allocation of their costs and benefits. In the past weeks, European farmers have protested against environmental policies. Environmental policies that are intended to reduce the negative environmental effects of agriculture. TMG has contributed to FAO’s State of Agriculture Report 2023 that highlights the external costs of food systems. The report highlights environmental, social and, importantly, health externalities. In Europe, the agricultural sector is subsidized by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A subsidy system that is inherently unjust. About 20% of the farms receive 80% of the subsidies. Repeated attempts at reforming the CAP failed in achieving the necessary fundamental changes. There is a need to craft new alliances to successfully reform the CAP. In this regard, True Cost Accounting not only highlights the height of the external costs, but it also shows who stands to benefit from a successful transformation. It thereby becomes a powerful tool to help building new alliances for just transitions. 

Just transitions in polarized societies

As if the lack of progress in sustainable development would not be challenging enough, transition pathways need to be designed, negotiated, and pursued in societies that are characterized by increasing levels of social polarization. Levels of polarization that can easily be exploited for political gains - not least by making use of artificial intelligence. What counts as reliable knowledge has become very contested.

At TMG, we believe in the value of knowledge for change. We think that one way to generate trust in the knowledge we produce is to engage stakeholders throughout the research process. Engagement begins by obtaining a joint understanding of the problems at hand, by jointly developing innovations, and piloting and analysis. This knowledge serves as a basis to develop new narratives for change; this knowledge serves to strengthen alliances for policy change. True, these are only very initial responses to the changing role of knowledge in polarized societies. Throughout 2024, we will seek further answers to this question which we believe will only gain in prominence in the years to come.

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