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A just transition

A letter from Glasgow.

‘If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu’. This was how Katrin Bennhold from The New York Times opened a discussion on the role of girls’ education in accelerating action on climate change. Indeed, inequality has been a theme that has cut through the events, talks and negotiations of the 26th United Nations climate change conference – from the lack of female leaders in the G20 to an absence of indigenous community representation from around the world. For many, there can be no meaningful policy action until the voices of all those affected by climate change are given a seat at the table. Against this background, as COP26 draws to a close, questions remain over the success of the discussions and what their longer-term impact will be.

How can economists help? Doesn’t tackling climate change come down to political will and scientific innovation? At a glance, this may appear to be the case. But economists – and the field of economics more broadly – have a vital role to play. As set out in the latest issue of our magazine, there are numerous ways in which economists can help to inform policymakers as they work to combat the climate and ecological crises. They can highlight the effectiveness of different policy options, evaluate the costs of extreme weather events and cast light on the unequal impact of the crisis. Recognising these fault lines is the first step to designing policy that puts vulnerable people first and robust economic analysis can help to ensure that these issues aren’t missed.

Over the past two weeks politicians, industry leaders and researchers – as well as tens of thousands of protestors – have descended on Glasgow. The aim has been to decide how countries can limit average global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. To many onlookers, the success of COP26 rests on the announcement of clear actions and policy commitments, particularly among richer countries. Without immediate and large-scale spending, the climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement look impossible to achieve.

Many arrived in Glasgow late, due to train delays from Euston. The cause: a fallen tree, strewn over the railway line after a powerful gale tore it from its roots. Inside the city, protestors marching under a variety of banners made their voices heard, the air filled with cries of frustration and impatience at the lack of progress made since Paris. Inside the main conference centre, speeches by world leaders and other key speakers were characterised by a sense of urgency: ‘we have not done nearly enough’; ‘the clock is ticking’; ‘is this how our story is due to end?

But reducing temperature is only part of the story, and large-scale spending plans may not even be enough. For many, any policies introduced to mitigate the worst effects of rising temperatures and sea levels must also protect those most vulnerable to the changing climate. One of the most striking images from the past week was Tuvalu’s foreign minister, Simon Kofe’s video address to conference delegates. Standing knee-deep in sea water, his speech highlighted the urgency of climate change for low-lying island nations. Home to 11,000 people, Tuvalu’s highest point sits at just 4.5 metres above sea-level. With the ocean rising steadily, the lives and livelihoods of Tuvaluans are acutely at risk.

But inequality in exposure to climate risk is not just about people living on low-lying islands. As Vanessa Nakate – a climate justice activist from Uganda – highlighted during her conversation with Katrin Bennhold, in many developing countries women and girls are on the frontline of climate change. Often responsible for collecting water or harvesting crops for their families, extreme weather events pose a serious risk for many women. Rigid gender roles and negative attitudes towards girl’s education often deny women the skills and knowledge necessary to react to the growing threat. As Vanessa reflected in her opening remarks, ‘if girls are never allowed to learn to climb trees, how will they survive a flood?’

An idea that has come up again and again during COP26 has been the need for ‘a just transition’. Shifting the global economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels, investing in natural capital, and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change – all while ensuring that policies are shaped to support those most at risk – is a tall order. But economics can be as much of a tool for climate justice as economic growth. Harnessing the power of economic research is vital if this challenge is to be navigated in a way that leaves no-one behind.

Observatory news

  • There are still a few tickets remaining for our Talking Economics event in Bristol next week. Across the three days, we have an exciting line-up of panel discussions, interviews and live podcast recordings that will tackle topics ranging from the future of work, the lasting effects of the pandemic, education and the Covid-19 generation, the future of finance and the climate crisis. Find out more on our website.
  • We launched the second issue of ECO magazine in Glasgow last week. You can read an online copy here or request a free paper copy by completing this form.
Author: Charlie Meyrick
Picture by Misbahul Aulia
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