The social dimension, the condition and purpose of the energy transition!
In discussions on the energy transition, one aspect always seems to be left out: the social dimension. However, if this dimension is not properly taken into account, it could cause the energy transition to fail or be delayed for a long time. Social acceptability, social cohesion and the conviction that efforts are fair and shared will be the pillars of a successful transition.
The tension between social and environmental issues has been present from the outset, in fact since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. The Rio conference then had the merit of defining poverty eradication as a top priority and sustainable development as a global perspective. Since then, many works have attempted to combine these two imperatives.
In recent years, however, a trend has developed, focusing on the urgency of climate change and relegating social issues to the background. The split has now widened even further, with schools of thought that are alien to each other and a mobilisation of different social forces. Protecting the environment, our common good, has become a divisive factor rather than a goal that should mobilise humanity as a whole. This trend is already resulting in delays, inconsistencies and setbacks.
This tension between climate action and social dimensions cannot be sidestepped, it needs to be tackled frankly. Raising awareness and educating is necessary, but it cannot alone resolve a contradiction that concerns globalisation and growing inequalities.
Global warming is expected to worsen inequalities, but also to redistribute the balance of power between countries according to their exposure to the new climate conditions, their own vulnerability, and, for some, their capacity to seize opportunities.
The energy transition, whether for prevention or adaptation, will in itself spontaneously aggravate inequalities, which are already soaring; it is naturally anti-redistributive because it implies an increase in energy costs and production costs. It therefore increases inequalities in terms of income and employment in developed countries, while penalising developing countries whose way out of poverty depends, like ours in the 20th century, on energy-intensive sectors.
It is illusory to think that “things will work themselves out” or to build this transition on the sacrifice of the social dimension!
For several decades, this sacrifice of the social dimension, and in particular of the working classes in developed countries, has stemmed from so-called liberal policies, with increased exposure to competition in return for access to world markets, a form of de-industrialisation and the acceptance of mass unemployment. Of course, the “average Frenchman” has benefited as a consumer, but he is also a producer and an employee, and in this respect he has lost a lot.
This goes way beyond reconciling the social dimension and the energy transition. It is about recognising that the energy transition cannot be successful without taking into account the social dimension and that such a transition, carried out in a fair manner, can become the foundation, the postulate, of a new social cohesion.