Energy transition

Column: New Zealand’s Roadmap May Direct the World to a Just Transition

The country’s Just Transition Summit, held in 2019, not only has set the groundwork for a stronger New Zealand on multiple fronts but also serves as an example for other countries and the international business community on how to create a shared roadmap for a sustainable society.

New Zealand Map folded, isolated on white Background
Source: bgblue/Getty Images

The priorities of environmental sustainability and economic prosperity have long been at odds in modern society. The onset of a clean energy transition has pushed governments to find common ground between the two. Balancing the urgency of climate change with the practicality of an energy transition will be the most pressing global issue in the next decade. Although the task is an unprecedented undertaking, countries must outline the most prudent way forward with haste.

The new agenda for nations is to evolve themselves into environmentally sustainable economies without sacrificing growing prosperity. Achieving this will require affordable, accessible, and reliable energy. Indonesia, Poland, and Canada have enacted measures to reform or restructure parts of their energy sectors to become greener.

A more comprehensive, low-emission economy may look like New Zealand, which is aggressively pursuing a just transition model—a framework in which Indigenous people, communities, regions, and all sectors manage the effects and maximize the opportunities as the nation reduces greenhouse gases. New Zealand is one of only two countries to embrace the just transition model as a matter of policy.

In 2019, New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment hosted the Just Transition National Summit, an inaugural gathering of businesses, workers, Mãori, youth, and communities to discuss a just pathway to low emissions by 2050. Nearly 50 speakers, both local and international, including the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, spearheaded talks over the course of 2 days. From this summit, as well as a robust series of workshops with residents, the Taranaki 2050 roadmap emerged.

As one of the keynote speakers, I was honored to return to my birthplace to take part in the dialogue. The Just Transition Summit not only has set the groundwork for a stronger New Zealand on multiple fronts but also serves as an example for other countries and the international business community on how to create a shared roadmap for a sustainable society.

It is a bold step for New Zealand, and for any country, in an attempt to address its energy future. But the necessary—and often overlooked—step is gathering stakeholders from all parts of the country to begin the conversation.

In the United States, politicians and activists promote elements of a just transition, but, in actuality, it’s often just lip service. A key tenant and starting point of a just transition is to codesign policy, regulation, and pathways with all stakeholders. The purpose is to create a multifaceted view of the effects, opportunities, and pathways to form a shared vision. This approach avoids the uneven distribution of the burdens (to those who can least afford it) and the rewards (to a chosen few) of the energy transition; overt politicization of the social issues; and the voices of certain stakeholders (e.g. activists and alarmists) becoming louder and more influential.

In the US context, a just transition must be a matter of policy. (I say this with the understanding that some policies have marginalized certain communities). This is exactly why an American just transition model must set the standard in how policy and policymakers champion each citizen. On the ground level, this reality resembles:

  • Ongoing dialogues with Indigenous Americans about growing prosperity while respecting Indigenous rights and culture
  • Ongoing local summits to identify risks to communities, especially those who are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change or economic changes
  • Increasing federal funding to educate the public about environmental equity issues and the tradeoffs between greener solutions
  • More public/private partnerships and consensus on the best practices to enact decarbonization
  • Upskilling through labor unions and workforce development programs to prepare workers for a low-emission economy
  • Securing a reliable and affordable source of materials as we transition, according to the IEA, from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system

In any just transition roadmap, policymakers and leaders should envision communities rooted in collaboration, as opposed to competition. If the US can set an inclusive vision through multistakeholder conversations, then hitting net-zero emission goals is realistic. Let us allow our boldest dreams for a more sustainable existence to be one in which everyone can reach and revel.