Can ecological modernisation bring about a just transition?

By Giovanni Carrosio, Professor of Environmental Sociology at University of Trieste, member of Forum on Inequality and Diversity & Lorenzo De Vidovich, Research Fellow in Ecowelfare Studies at University of Trieste

Some 1.4 billion people in the world are affected by energy poverty. Fifty million of these people are European citizens. Being unable to or facing constraints in satisfying basic needs such as cooking, lighting and heating, affect people’s quality of life and social mobility by exacerbating other forms of inequality. Energy poverty can have negative impacts on the quality of and access to education, can worsen people’s health, and can more generally limit peoples’ means of improving their living conditions. However policies to combat climate change and drive the ecological transition are often socially blind and perpetuate social inequalities. The eco-welfare framework can be used as a policy tool to align the ecological transition with social justice.

In recent years, efforts to address this challenge have multiplied. In 2011, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, with the aim of achieving universal access to energy by 2030 through a global increase in energy efficiency and production from renewable sources. Reducing energy poverty is also one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 7).

Although the ecological transition is currently being mainstreamed in numerous national and international agendas, fair and equal access to energy systems is still an unresolved issue. While industrialised countries implement policies to combat climate change, there is a risk that these policies are neither aimed at social inclusion nor at fighting poverty.

Ecological modernisation sees growth in the volume of traded goods and sustainability as compatible. A compatibility that should be made possible thanks to technological innovation to make production systems more efficient. However, ecological modernisation does not take into consideration the social effects of the energy transition in its model of “green capitalism”.

Most instruments adopted by governments to stimulate the transition are market-based policies, which aim to achieve decarbonisation objectives through regulation and incentive systems. The combination of technological innovation and the market system has given rise to policies which, for example, have encouraged the production of energy from renewable sources and technology adoption for the energy retrofit of existing building stock; leveraged building certification mechanisms to stimulate energy efficiency; and encouraged the purchase of electric or hybrid cars.

Citizens have unequally benefited from these policies. A choice was made to boost the energy transition by stimulating innovation in the upper-middle class: incentivising homeowners, families with stable incomes, savings and spending capacity to make major investments like installing photovoltaic panels and other energy efficiency interventions in housing, buying an electric car, or purchasing homes with a high energy performance.

The lower and middle classes have had difficulty accessing these policies. Low-income families with no savings, for instance, face constraints in accessing policies based on incentives or tax deductions. These same social classes also express the most scepticism on the environmental issue; a consequence of the fact that they do not see a tangible link between the transition and improvements in their quality of life. A “just transition” does not automatically emerge from the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energies. Ecological modernisation policies are socially blind and as a consequence contribute to reproducing social inequalities.

Over the past four decades we have witnessed significant transformations of the welfare state. In addition to the rise in so-called new social risks (such as labour precariousness, ageing, increased segregation, financial constraints in households), environmental issues have begun to weigh on the sustainability of welfare systems. To date, public policies have addressed the environmental crisis and the crisis of the welfare system as separate issues. However, with the worsening of the climate crisis a number of scholars have begun to look at the relationship between the two by investigating the emergence of the so-called “environmental welfare state”.

The environmental welfare state accounts for the growing demand for climate adaptation, which is supposed to exert more pressure on strained fiscal and welfare systems, given that climate change comes with new configurations of risks and inequalities. Aligning the ecological transition with social justice requires identifying and addressing the possible interdependencies between social and environmental policies. The eco-welfare framework can be a tool to enable welfare and environmental systems to steer pre-distribution policies. In this respect, pre-distributive policies can ensure that the most vulnerable social classes and populations benefit from the socio-ecological transition. They differ from consolidated models of distributive and redistributive policies insofar as they combine regulatory principles with particular attention to the social implications of policy interventions, by addressing the regulatory and social mechanisms of wealth formation.

We envisage eco-welfare as a new policy framework that intertwines the themes typically addressed by social policies (such as poverty, in its multiple forms, from economic constraints to other, more complex forms, such as energy poverty) and the environmental issues related to the ecological transition. Within the eco-welfare framework, addressing energy poverty entails efforts to reduce emissions in different areas (from mobility to the use of household appliances), promote natural forms of cooling (for example through public and private parks), ensuring healthy buildings and people’s ability to access and use energy, up to collective and participatory forms of energy production and consumption at the local community level. Eco-welfare means acting with people and in places where poverty is created, so that the policy tools to accelerate the energy transition are aimed at combating social inequalities.