Social cohesion at risk as economy moves towards carbon neutrality, Higgins warns

All must make significant lifestyle changes but just transition essential for most vulnerable, President says

There is a very real risk of loss of social cohesion as Ireland's economy and society undergoes vital transformation in seeking to become carbon neutral, President Michael D Higgins has warned.

If Ireland’s climate targets are to be met over coming decades, “everyone will have to make significant changes to their lifestyles, but for some the changes will be more considerable”, he told the annual conference of European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils Network (EEAC). The event was hosted in Dublin by the National Economic & Social Council (NESC).

Mr Higgins highlighted likely impacts on farmers, peat workers and their communities, often based in underdeveloped regions lacking employment opportunities. This could only be properly addressed by ensuring a “just transition” for all affected by upheaval, Mr Higgins said.

Loss of cohesion was “a very real concern” as evidenced by the social devastation caused by closure of coal mines in the UK during the 1980s, “that has not been recovered to this day”.


In Ireland’s case, “farmers will be required to change the basis of their livelihoods, and peat-extraction workers will, when the extraction ceases, have to be enabled to move into more ecologically sustainable occupations, or in some cases compensated in such a fashion as will enable their changed but full participation in community life.”

He added: “The challenge is to produce policy measures which enable workers and sectors to be the arrow of change rather than the battered target of random initiatives.”

A critical challenge in public policy is ensuring inclusivity as Europe moves towards a net-zero emissions economy and society that results in regenerated soils, protected biodiversity and oceans, and a thriving circular economy - "adjustments, all of which are so urgently necessary if we are to avoid ecological catastrophe".

Just transition entails profound structural change with personal and societal ramifications, he said. “However, it is a transformation that will be defined by values brought to it, hence the importance of all partners, trade unions and socially concerned employers being involved in the dialogue as to how the industry or sector is to be restructured.”

Economic structural change could leave workers, their families and communities to bear the costs of transition, Mr Higgins said, thus leading to unemployment, poverty, and exclusion for those left behind, in contrast to those with flexible and mobile skills sets who are able to afford and adapt to change.

A just transition addresses this concern by promoting sustainable actions to help workers by ensuring their voices are part and parcel of any conversion, he believed.

‘Fairness essential’

But fairness was essential; for farmers “who will be required to change practices for the protection of climate and natural systems; fairness for workers in emerging economies who demand their share of the so-called ‘industrialisation dividend’; fairness for those having to abandon their homes as sea levels rise and threaten coastal regions and islands as a consequence of climate change; fairness for those populations impacted by air pollution and broader environmental impacts of fossil fuel use”.

He said the 2020 NESC report, Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition in Ireland, was of importance today on a par with the Whitaker Report of 60 years ago.

The report on workers and sectors impacted by the transition to net-zero carbon and the digital revolution “is a research-validated overview of the challenges facing the economy as it is embedded in society, and the practical choices facing employers, employees and the enterprise sector,” Mr Higgins noted.

It describes how innovation and regional development can play their part. “This return to regionalism is so welcome and long overdue,” he said.

President Higgins underlined the critical importance of ensuring any major economic change entails just transition, where inclusion and participation are front and centre-stage. A “just recovery” was also needed post Covid-19.

He echoed calls for social dialogue on “how we embed the just economy and society, now so urgently needed, and indeed desired by the citizenry”. It also required sustainable investments in low-emission and job-intensive sectors and technologies, embracing “principles of decent work”.

Technology and public investment

Technological developments could be advanced – as advocated by the late Irish scientist Mike Cooley – where "human-centred, socially useful production can become a lead focus of research and technology if we choose it to be".

Public investment embracing just transition will necessitate resolute action by all of government, as well as consideration of what resources are needed to meet “this challenge of economic and societal transformation”. Public spending, including filling infrastructural gaps, must be “viewed as an investment in both society and the economy, not as a cost or a burden as, regrettably, it has often been so myopically considered”, he said.

Covid-19 has resulted in huge suffering but also near-widespread agreement on the necessity for public spending, and a fundamentally new, socially, economically and ecologically sustainable future, Mr Higgins noted.

Successful crisis management was no guarantee of durable reform, the President added. “We therefore must embed the hard-earned wisdom from the Covid-19 crisis into strong scholarly work, policy and institutional frameworks...What we teach as economics must be pluralistic, rich in intellectual engagement, methodologically adequate if it is to be the source of good, inclusive policy.”

He welcomed the European green deal’s just transition mechanism and a commitment to mobilise €150 billion by 2027. “Europe must step up to the challenge of ‘just transition’ across the regions through adequate resourcing if it is to retain any legitimacy across the citizenries of Europe. Now is the time to be bold. After all, the challenge now is to make new forms of European and global economy.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times