Eloi Laurent: ‘We can exit climate chaos through social justice and well-being’

For the first time, the link between health and the environment will be up for discussion during global climate talks. There needs to be a simultaneous transition in well-being and justice, says economist Eloi Laurent, according to whom the tools are already there.

Published on 4 November 2021 at 10:00

Voxeurop: Do you agree with COP26 President Alok Sharma that this conference is our “last hope”?  

Eloi Laurent: I think it’s unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to overdramatise things: if COP26 is a geopolitical failure, climate talks will still have to continue, since the climate is a global public good and every fraction of change counts. Despite the failure of Copenhagen in 2009, we still managed to make Paris 2015 a success. The real question is: what do we need to talk about in order to make real progress? My view is that there are two major topics we need to place at the centre of global climate talks: justice and well-being — and more specifically, health. This is the essential message of last August’s IPCC Report: there is a way out of climate chaos, by dropping growth and reducing inequalities in and between countries. What this entails is a transition in both well-being and justice. The two obviously work together: exiting fossil fuels leads to considerable health benefits, but it can only be achieved if the reduction of luxury emissions (air travel, luxury cars, etc.) finances the reduction of essential emissions (food, heating, professional mobility). This is perfectly possible via progressive social-ecological taxation.

You call for a “just transition”, which addresses the interconnected challenges of social inequality and climate justice.

Together with Belgian colleagues we’ve tried to give a clear, working definition of just transition, which we believe should be central to the European Green Deal. Just transition is not limited to social compensation for fossil fuel workers, as in the "just transition mechanism". For us, just transition must be expanded to include three requirements: the systematic analysis of ecological shocks and the policies that seek to mitigate them from the perspective of social justice; to prioritize human well-being over economic growth in the design of just transition policies; and last but not least, to build and implement just transition policies in a democratic manner.

Rethinking European peace today means bringing peace to European societies by reducing inequality and making peace with the Biosphere (via “full health”) instead of waging war on it. This economy of well-being is a revolution in the sense of a return to origins: it is inscribed in European history. When the Americans invented GDP, Europeans developed social protection.

Thus, at the heart of just transition, there is an essential link between ecological crises and social inequalities, both between and within countries. This is what we’ve tried to clarify with another group of 30 researchers in a recent book. To make real progress on climate justice, there needs to be progress in how we understand the problems and design our policies, which is what many studies are doing today. At COP26 we can make progress on the principles of justice that should govern the allocation of the global carbon budget and then, within each country, on the criteria and policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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