What Does a Genuinely Just Transition Mean for the Caribbean?

CLACS Caribbean Studies Seminar Series

Speaker: Matthew Bishop (University of Sheffield)

The notion of a ‘Just Transition’ has come to dominate thinking globally on climate mitigation. Essentially, it refers to how we might envision transitioning away from carbon-intensive industries in ways that do not reproduce the pathologies associated with industrial development, but rather generate equitable—i.e. just—social and ecological outcomes. It also reflects both a set of thorny intellectual questions grounded in a rapidly proliferating interdisciplinary academic debate and a set of practical ones that increasingly animate official policy agendas. However, as presently conceived, the concept does not travel well to the Caribbean or Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in general. 

First, it is distilled from—and seeks to describe and influence—the experience of developed nations pursuing mitigation. However, SIDS are tiny, make negligible contributions to global emissions, and for them the imperative of adapting to the imposed harm of climate change is considerably more urgent. Second, it tends to focus on the decarbonisation of extractive sectors in large countries which have the capacity to transition to similarly large-scale green industries. Yet SIDS rarely have extractive industries to transition away from: their economies are dominated by services which are entirely unaccounted for in the Just Transitions literature, and they also remain—and are likely to remain—highly dependent on imported fossil-fuels. Third, it emphasises locally driven, community-based solutions and greater self-sufficiency (again, based on the experience of larger states). But small size and insularity means SIDS have fixed constraints on local capacity, which in turn implies that scaling up, rather than down, is necessary to solve their environmental challenges. 

A broader problem is that the debate, such as it is, is polarised along epistemological lines: mainstream thinkers, scientists and policy actors tend to accept the concept at face value and view its pursuit and achievement as intrinsically desirable; critics, by contrast, emphasise its contingent nature and its potential to both elide and reproduce painful legacies of injustice inherited from colonialism. So, what might be done? This paper attempts to synthesise the debate and tread a path between these two positions, recasting the ‘Just Transitions’ debate in ways that might point towards substantive policy shifts that also take seriously the deep-seated injustices that will inevitably mediate its application in spaces like the Caribbean. 

Event date: 14 March 2023

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