Opinion piece

COP27: New narratives of the just transition?

  • 06 December 2022

A conversation between Alejandra Rivera, Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) Built Environment Team and Charis Hoffmann, ICLEI Circular Development, reflecting on COP27 and its significance for our joint work going forward.

IHRB: By attending the conference during the two weeks, we were able to participate in various sessions about the built environment, including some panels. One of the main takeaways for us is that it seems that the space to talk about the social dimension of the ecological transition is opening up more in the events of the Blue Zone and in the negotiations themselves. Did you get the same impression? What was your experience like?

ICLEI: In the events, panels and discussions our team has participated in during this COP, focusing on circularity and the built environment, we are seeing the discussions center on social equity and the need for a just transition more prominently. However, what is meant by social equity differs depending on the background and cultural context, i.e. equity can take on a very different meaning in the Global North than in the Global South, and even between countries there can be marked nuances. Similarly, the term ‘just transition’ seems to be used often to tick the box, running the risk of becoming a hollow phrase. To underpin these discussions, our Team has developed three dimensions that can help define social equity: access, participation and opportunity. The Social Equity Framework gives a broad overview over these dimensions, and earlier this year we published the Equitable Transitions Guidebook that introduces tools that can be used locally to ensure that sustainability programs are equitable and fair for communities.

I believe that both our organizations are uniquely positioned to deepen the understanding and uptake of the social dimension in the ecological and circular transitions, in our individual and joint work. On the topic of circularity, it has been encouraging for me to see that the social co-benefits of circular practices are being increasingly recognized by different stakeholders of the built environment sector. This is a great basis to build on. What insights and messages are you taking away from COP?

IHRB: We went to COP27 with a clear message: that the transition in the built environment needs to be just, inclusive, and based in human rights. Our perception from the conference and the interactions we had was that various stakeholders are indeed increasingly becoming open and more understanding of this imperative. From the conversations with the business sector, mainly construction and engineering firms, they are aware project implementation is directly impacted by social issues, e.g. whether participatory processes and community engagement takes place or not, and how that determines project uptake in the short and long run. However, we also noticed a ‘knowledge gap’ on how to minimize human risks to people, and maximize social opportunities in transitions of the built environment. From local governments, and their interactions at COP27, we sense the ‘awareness gap’ is not as wide, as it is in the private sector. Local governments deal more directly and more often with the – positive and negative – social impacts of urban development. However, it seems that the ‘knowledge gap’ on how to do that remains, and hence our tools like the Dignity by Design Framework and the Circular City Actions Framework can be very handy for both businesses and local governments. Was your impression the same? How would you conceive these ‘awareness’ and ‘knowledge’ gaps in these sectors, and how can our tools fill them up?
ICLEI: I believe that the tools you mentioned, and the social equity framework I mentioned earlier, are important building blocks in filling these gaps in knowledge. But to answer the ‘how’ question, we need to first take stock of how decisions about social inclusion in our built environment are made in cities. Importantly, developing a vision of how we want to reach this is imperative to support translation into roadmaps and local action. In the ICLEI-IHRB joint research and visioning project, ‘Just Transition in the Built Environment’, we are doing just that: In a series of workshops spanning throughout eight cities from different world regions, we are mapping how decisions are being made at local level, and tapping into the visions of different stakeholders of an inclusive and equitable future. The final compendium report will encompass the learnings from these different case studies worldwide and be an important vehicle for guiding local action. We have seen that in the climate space, cities take bolder and more ambitious action than national governments. Similarly, cities can be more progressive on social equity in their jurisdictions, and provide the necessary infrastructure and nudging of stakeholders in their ecosystem to ensure that the transition is sustainable and equitable. What challenges do you take away from COP27 in terms of advancing work on social equity?

IHRB: There are various challenges ahead of us. While COP27 has shown some progress on the recognition of the importance of the social dimension in the transition, this is just the start of the paradigm shift we need to do. Societal changes at this scale naturally face resistance due the magnitude of energy, resources, and mobilization needed, and due to new narratives that disrupt the status quo in which there are clear winners and losers. Therefore, all actors, governments, businesses and civil society have a role to play to fill the awareness and knowledge gaps, and catalyze the transition towards more (environmentally and socially) sustainable modes of living.

COP27 has also helped us refine our role in advancing just transitions in the built environment, and our strategies for doing so. For example, the conference offered a platform for various community groups –indigenous peoples, transport workers, construction workers, tenants, and marginalized groups in informal settlements– to voice their claims. They all have been impacted directly and indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, by the processes of the built environment, and even by some climate actions. However, these voices have not yet been unified with the same root causes, hence, we recognized an opportunity for us to work more closely with these affected communities, and create stronger collective advocacy at both local and global levels.
This reinforces the point on visioning and narrative building that you mentioned earlier, which we are jointly advancing with our Just Transition Project. The rights of these groups will play a central role in the case study research and the visioning workshops of the project, in addition to the individual human rights that are the basis of the concept of justice.

Another takeaway derives from this point. While it is of paramount importance to advocate for these individual and group rights, we also have to look beyond the surface, at what the underlying common root causes of oppression in these communities are. This exercise would inescapably lead us to think in terms of systems and models of production and consumption at a larger scale, and to recognise the intricate system of connections and relationships between all actors and sectors in the built environment industry and throughout entire supply chains. Hence, our project will also look at questions of systemic change by collecting and analyzing 100 cases of new or innovative economic models worldwide that are aimed (even if partially) at shaking current unsustainable and oppressive models. We believe that systems thinking is absolutely necessary to understand and move the large-scale levers we need to achieve true and long-lasting environmental and social justice.

Both: Looking at the root cause of the problem means recognizing that the linear extractive economy led us into the climate emergency we are in now. We need to urgently rethink and fundamentally change our model of production and consumption towards a circular approach that prioritizes the local and harmonizes with nature. This is not only imperative to solve the climate crisis, but also offers co-benefits to reach biodiversity and social equity targets.

The same linear extractive profit-driven model has also widened socio-spatial inequalities in cities worldwide. The modus operandi until now has been to leave built environment construction and shaping processes to the free reins of the market, without regard to the social value and social function that it plays for society e.g. housing provision, public spaces, heritage, social cohesions, community building, etc. hence there is also a call to rethink the model from the social dimension, to question our priorities and ensure we are placing people and human rights at the center of decision-making.

These are very exciting times for the opportunity we have in the decisive decade towards 2030. World leaders, governments at all levels, businesses of all sizes, and organizations of all purposes are finally acknowledging the need to decarbonise our economy, and the most polluting sectors such as the built environment. This is a unique moment worldwide. There is an urgent need for environmentally-friendly solutions and there are a myriad of companies, researchers, and innovators responding to that need. To truly live up to the idea of the “Implementation COP”, we need to accelerate the implementation of the circular and just transition – and this can only be done if we join forces and share our learnings, and work collectively towards the same goals.