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Saker Nusseibeh, CBE, addresses World Climate Foundation at COP28

5 December 2023
Session was titled “Empowering Equitable Change: Key Roles in Driving a Just Transition”.
Ladies and Gentlemen.
First, may I thank the World Climate Foundation for putting together an excellent programme throughout COP28. In this session, I am very pleased to be able to introduce the subject of “Empowering Equitable Change”.
How we can address and execute a just transition, as the world seeks to decarbonise in a way that is not punitive to countries or people, is economically sound and is sustainable. It is an immense task. It requires support and compensation for those in poorer, less developed countries, who need to shore themselves up from the effects of climate change. As well as education and training globally to help societies move to a low carbon economy.
The move towards a decarbonised world is, as we all know, real and happening. Countries representing over seventy percent of global emissions today have committed to net zero targets by mid-century. The International Energy Agency says that clean energy employment accounts for more than half of all energy sector jobs around the world. However, we have to recognise that moving forward with this transition could easily have far-reaching and negative consequences.
Consequences that could harm countries and people economically. That could make many of today’s jobs obsolete without finding alternative ways for people to earn a living. Some of the biggest challenges now facing the transition to a low-carbon economy are social rather than simply technical.
Therefore, successfully addressing climate change demands the consideration of equity and justice, alongside cost curves and R&D. Environmental and social considerations should not be viewed in silos. That is what lies at the heart of the Just Transition.
Governments, companies and financial institutions should ensure that the costs of actions taken to advance climate goals are shared Justly and the benefits are shared widely.
There are two principal drivers, to my mind, behind the Just Transition.
The Moral Imperative
First, there is a moral imperative to do so. As a Moslem, I often reflect on the fact that one of the 99 names of God is Al-Adl – The Just. I take it to mean that in all actions one should advocate for and try to achieve a just outcome. One which encompasses both fellow humans and all the resources of nature that God has made us stewards of.
There is another concept that I reflect on when approaching this topic and that is the concept of Al-Mizan – Balance. In al-Rahman, God informs us that he raised the Heavens and installed Balance. In al-Hadid, he tells us that he sent his messengers with testimony and scripture; and brought balance unto earth.
My good friend the English Sufi, Ahmad Keeler, has written and lectured extensively about this concept which he argues is not only central but almost unique in Islam. A balance in life, a balance within communities and between communities, and a balance between humans and nature.
Of course the moral argument is for a Just Transition is not unique to Islam. I was privileged to be in a meeting in the Vatican in 2019, discussing decarbonising the global economy, when His Holiness Pope Francis told us…and I quote “Faced with a climate emergency, we must take action accordingly, in order to avoid perpetrating a brutal act of injustice towards the poor and future generations”. “In effect”, he said, “it is the poor who suffer the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
I am equally privileged to have worked with several of His Majesty King Charles’ organisations – such as the Sustainable Markets Initiative and the Prince’s Trust. I have always admired his pioneering advocacy for nature (much dismissed in those early days) and his clear-sightedness when it comes to the environment and nature.
His view of the world is, and I quote His Majesty, “an outlook shared by many indigenous peoples that we must be thinking seven generations ahead really to have any chance to be sure that we leave a better world behind us.”
A critical aspect of the moral case for the just transition is ensuring the developing world – which includes the poorest countries in the world – receives the support they need. These are the countries who are either building their economies, developing their institutions and creating better more affluent societies. Or they are the very poorest who suffer from a lack of resources to address even basic societal needs.
And yet these are the ones facing a bill for a climate crisis not of their making. It is estimated in a UN report that the cost of climate change goals to developing countries is nearly $5.5 trillion a year from 2023 to 2030 – about eighteen percent of their collective GDP. They calculate that there is currently a yearly shortfall of $337 billion to that $5.5 trillion number for these forty eight developing countries.
As someone who has enjoyed the benefits of living in a first world economy for much of my life, it is clear to me we cannot stand by. The pathway to a sustainable future has to be a Just one. One that doesn’t demand that countries pay a higher price for past mistakes made by others and from which they did not benefit. We need the ‘loss and damage’ fund to work. We – the nations that caused it – need to help.
But the Just pathway applies equally in developed countries where we have entire industries and employees dependent upon carbon fuels for their livelihood. Whether in the state of Texas, as an example, or in Norway.
Transitioning to a future with lower carbon emissions must take these workers, and the businesses dependent on them, into account. It requires a pathway that allows them to find alternative sources of income and support the communities they live in.
The Economic Imperative
But, aside from the moral imperative there is, of course, a wider economic imperative for a Just Transition. I mean, let’s be clear. What is the transition to a low carbon economy if not an entire restructuring of an economic ecosystem?
There have been examples in the past when changes in economic structure were imposed from above with scant regard for the impact on affected communities. Even when these imposed changes did achieve their ultimate aim, it came at a huge social and human cost. One can think of the transformation of the Russian economy from agrarian to advanced industrial under the Soviets, as one such example.
A far more effective way to bring about a change in economic structures is one that either happens gradually overtime. For example the evolution of the agrarian economy in Europe to a more city based and industrial based economy at the beginning of the 18th century.
However, we don’t have the luxury of time since the cost of a slow transition is financially too high a price to pay for the majority of us living on this planet.
It is true that this transformation is already happening. From China, where the electric car is becoming the normal mode of transport, to the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, to changing eating habits. These changes will result in a new economic paradigm just as surely as industrialization and trade did for the feudal economic structure in Europe.
But the fact remains – we need a far faster pace of change. To achieve this we need to see three levels of convergence:
First, we have to convince all parts of the developed economies, but especially those exposed to carbon, that it is in their short term as well as their long term interest to go along this journey.
Secondly, we have to ensure that in the move towards a more sustainable economic framework – including biodiversity – the move is not such that it disrupts and destabilises large swathes of the Global South by deepening their disadvantage and poverty trap and triggering possible waves of migration that, in turn, might destabilise the developed world.
Finally, we need to agree a pathway for countries that are dependent on carbon for their livelihood or who benefit from short term activity that impacts biodiversity, such as deforestation.
If we calculate that financially the costs of not moving to a lower carbon, more bio-diversified world are too high. And that the slow pace of movement – such as the one you would expect with a natural transition from one economic framework to another – would lead to the destabilisation of the developed world through social disruption and migration. One must come to the conclusion that the Just Transition is as much an economic as a moral imperative. If not more so…
And that it is in each of our interests – whether as individuals, collectively as corporations, or as national governments – to ensure that everyone buys into this journey to a more sustainable, safer and equitable world.
Thank you.

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