Can affected communities expect a ‘just’ energy transition?

13 May 2024
The transition to a low carbon future indicates a move away from fossil fuels and an increase in mining for critical minerals to support the scale up of renewable energy technologies.

For many communities, the impacts will be profound – some will be impacted as fossil fuel projects close, while others will experience significant social, cultural and economic impacts from increased mining for critical minerals and expansion of renewable energy projects.
Dr Vigya Sharma
Dr Vigya Sharma works at the intersection of society and the natural environment
Senior Research Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, Dr Vigya Sharma, works at the intersection of society and the natural environment.

Much of her recent work examines the social aspects of energy transitions and interrogates the idea of a ‘just transition’, which she approaches as a set of principles and ideas that seek greater equity, social justice and fairness in how energy transition planning and outcomes unfold.

What is a ‘just transition’?

“Just transitions are not a “thing” to achieve contrary to how the concept is framed in the media,” she explains.

"In fact, it increasingly looks impossible to achieve a transition that would be just and whose impacts and benefits are going to be equitably distributed. Some groups will benefit no doubt, but at the costs of what risks and who will likely bear these risks needs critical thinking and reflection.”
“We have done some work in the fossil fuel sector in China, India and Australia and our analysis supports the fact that if and when the transition is fully underway, the risks to communities and landscapes are likely to be significant, and perhaps even permanent in nature.”
Vigya highlights there are likely to be new risks and contestations over land, water, food, energy security, and Indigenous rights.
“These are not going to be limited to any one or two regions. They are going to be widespread and will be seen both in developing regions and the OECD,” she says.
The concept of a ‘just transition’ developed in the American labour union movement in the 1970s as a program of support for workers who lost their jobs due to environmental protection policies. Since then the concept has broadened and is now closely associated with the energy transition.
“The concept means different things to different people, depending on which group you talk to,” Vigya explains.  
“And the risk is that it is increasingly becoming a catchphrase that regulators, industry and other groups use to suit their agenda.
“Identifying who is at risk and how those risks are likely to be distributed are pre-conditions to any meaningful conversation on transition management,” she says.

How affected could communities be?

In a 2022 article for Nature Sustainability, CSRM colleagues found that 54% of all energy transition mineral mining projects overlap with Indigenous Peoples Lands.

“This is a powerful finding that should force policy makers to ask some important questions: who benefits from the energy transition, who stands to lose, and how might this loss manifest.
“As academics studying these ideas and trends, we are alert to these conversations and encourage the wider community to critically engage with the idea of injustice in the process of achieving climate ambitions,” she says.
In recent research on the impacts on communities of phasing out coal dependence, Vigya and colleagues have identified two main challenges.
“The first is economic diversification. These regions have seen generations of communities deeply identify with coal mining and maintain a sense of pride.
“Identifying new opportunities for socio-economic development that align with, or build on existing skills, cultural values and the regional social fabric is going to be time and resource intensive.
“The other challenge is to focus on the “process”.
“Our research on coal mining communities’ experiences with transition overseas has found that programs need to acknowledge differentiated vulnerabilities across communities, regions and stakeholder groups.
“This allows for meaningful engagement, and targeted financial support towards groups most in need, and through this process there is greater uptake of co-designed transition plans and programs by local communities,” Vigya explains.

The experience of the Australian car manufacturing industry

Within the context of Australia, Vigya and her colleague Dr Julia Loginova completed a paper on the lessons that could be learned from the closure of the car industry.
“We had realised that many of the solutions that had worked overseas were not going to work in Australia for political, socio-economic structural reasons, so we decided to look at closure experiences domestically, and the car manufacturing sector stood out for us.
“The final closures happened relatively recently, and the industry had some comparable features to the coal sector (male, low-skilled demographic, deep sense of identify and cultural pride across multiple generations within a family, and some degree of mono-industry dependence).
CSRM researchers have been examining the effects of the energy transition on communities for several years. They have worked with stakeholders in the Pacific, in the Arctic, been commissioned by the World Bank, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Ford Foundation, to examine the pressure on the legal safeguards and approval processes governing mining in the race to provide metals for the energy transition.
Learn more about CSRM’s work on ‘just transitions’