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Op-ed: How Can Citizens Engage With Just Transitions?

By Peter Newell


University of Sussex,

Transitioning to a low-carbon global economy will inevitably create winners and losers. Rapid and far-reaching changes in the adoption of low-carbon technologies, lifestyle changes, and labour relations require meaningful public engagement for policy to be both effective and equitable. But there is growing concern that just transition plans and partnerships are being developed without meaningful citizen engagement.

In a recent paper, we explored concrete strategies and intervention points for bringing justice issues into energy transition debates. There are a number of tools, strategies, and approaches to citizen engagement that are currently underused but have significant potential to help accelerate just transitions. These include climate assemblies; citizen auditing of projects, plans and policies; participatory adaptation planning; participatory budgeting; and standing independent panels and commissions to hold governments and others accountable for their climate policy obligations.

Plebiscites and referendums provide one tool for gauging public backing for energy transition plans. In August 2023, the people of Ecuador were asked to vote on whether to keep the country’s largest oil fields in the Yasuni National Park permanently in the ground. Fifty-eight percent of those who voted supported the proposal to protect the reserve and leave the oil in the ground; a powerful example of the desire for energy transition even in countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels. But citizens can also engage directly in policy design. Costa Rica’s Citizen’s Climate Change Advisory Council is made up of representatives from a cross-section of civil society, Indigenous, business, and trade union groups. The council provides a deliberative space that advises the Ministry of Environment and Energy on issues related to climate change and then monitors the implementation of Costa Rica’s nationally determined contribution.

Many governments have found the need to move from more top-down processes toward more bottom-up engagement in supporting just transitions. Germany’s coal transition policies were designed to benefit the increasingly insecure and dissatisfied workers and a few wealthy industrialists. But the top-down manner in which the policies were carried out exacerbated many of the structural challenges facing the coal-dependent regions, and so, over time, policy-makers pursued a more bottom-up approach, incorporating citizen voices and local actors’ participation into the decision-making process.

Another approach being adopted by governments such as France, the United Kingdom, and Ireland is citizen-led climate assemblies. As well as proposing particular policy interventions where consensus has been generated by a representational cross-section of the country, they can also create momentum for more ambitious climate action and embolden politicians to go further. Participatory budgeting, meanwhile, provides a way of engaging citizens in complex decisions over financing for transition pathways. In 2019, the Portuguese city of Lisbon introduced a “green participatory budget” that sought to galvanise support for mitigation and adaptation projects. Citizens allocated public funds toward cycle lanes, tree planting schemes to reduce urban heating, and water capture and storage initiatives.

But citizens can also hold governments to account for actions and inaction on climate change. Legal challenges provide one such strategy. The case brought against the oil giant Shell in the Netherlands, where the Dutch court ruled that Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030, is a case in point, while in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s principal oil-producing region, over 13,000 residents have now filed claims for loss of livelihood and damages against oil companies operating there. Protest politics provide another type of citizen engagement. Activists have sought to cut the supply of finance for fossil fuel investment and hold richer governments to account for their ongoing support for fossil fuels, persuading the European Investment Bank to discontinue finance for fossil fuels and the U.K. government to end the use of export finance for fossil fuels, for example. Widespread resistance to new fossil fuel projects has ensured that over a quarter of fossil fuel projects encountering social resistance have been cancelled, suspended, or delayed.

These experiences suggest that citizen engagement cannot be reduced to tick-box consultations or brief and formulaic processes overseen by intermediaries and actors outside the context of the energy transition in question. It is more than a question of institutional design and often best thought of as countervailing power that contests dominant configurations of power and seeks to share power and control over energy systems in more even and democratic ways. To that end, and in the meantime, there is much greater scope to think creatively about citizen engagement in all aspects of transition, not as post-hoc approval or information sharing, but as active participation in the design, development, and implementation of just transitions at all levels of society.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex and research director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is author of Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions.

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