By Leire Pajín, Candela de la Sota, Alejandro Rijo, and David Ribó

As the world gathers for the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28), the urgency of addressing climate change has never been more palpable. While the focus remains on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigating the impacts of global warming, the concept of a ‘just transition’ has been gaining traction, as evidenced by the COP 26 Just Transition Declaration, the COP 27 roundtable, and a dedicated thematic day at this year’s COP 28. This transition, which seeks to balance environmental concerns with social and economic justice, signifies a profound shift in how we approach the global climate agenda and must be considered across all sectors and areas.

In the energy sector, the deployment of renewables is one of the cornerstones for replacing traditional fossil fuels, and recent technological advancements are helping to reduce costs and accelerate their deployment significantly. However, the energy transition cannot be approached solely from a techno-economic point of view. Renewables deployment requires the active participation of society, education to foster an understanding of its risks and impacts, and inclusion of the most vulnerable and affected sectors, including the communities where renewables are installed.

A just transition also requires decision makers to be mindful of disparities, suffered impacts, and varying responsibilities, and to ensure a fair distribution of the efforts and benefits of this transition. In particular, we must avoid neglecting communication with local communities, disregarding economic structures such as local agriculture, or implementing designs that jeopardize environmental ecosystems and local heritage elements.

There are numerous positive examples of projects that have been developed in collaboration with local communities that distribute benefits and show respect for biodiversity and the landscape. For example, the small town of Higueruela, located in the province of Albacete, Spain, was one of the first towns in Spain to receive eolic energy installations at the beginning of the 2000s. With the taxes collected from these installations, a residence for the elderly, as well as other public infrastructures have been created, generating jobs for the local communities, especially for women, who are not usually employed in the maintenance of renewable energy installations.

In Murcia, Spain, one of the biggest photovoltaic plants in the area, located near a natural protected area, resulted in multiple beneficial impacts on local biodiversity. By implementing different measures to facilitate the adaptation of wildlife and vegetation to the plant, it ensured that no harm was done to the local ecosystems. Cases like these should be studied for best practices and replicated, bearing in mind that providing decision makers with the necessary administrative incentives will also help to accelerate their adoption.

In addition to coordination with local communities, multi-stakeholder collaboration is also crucial for a just transition. Given the interconnected nature of the 2030 Agenda, exploring sustainable development challenges from different perspectives is an integral part of developing holistic and integral solutions, and thus guaranteeing fair, inclusive, and long-term policies that leave no one behind.

To foster multi-stakeholder collaboration for a just energy transition, SDSN Spain, a network of sustainable development research institutions, is coordinating a process where national, regional, and local governments, enterprises, civil society, and academia engage in dialogue sessions on the main topics of the energy transition in Spain. This includes discussions around economic development, biodiversity and landscape conservation, governance, and local development through its Renewables with the Territory project. From the outcomes of these interactions, a roadmap will be presented in 2024 to the national Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge to create a regulatory framework for a just energy transition, built from the voices of all the stakeholders involved.

Given the complexity of the climate crisis, particularly the energy transition, it is necessary to work towards building a shared vision of renewable energy deployment that builds upon exemplary cases, standardizes processes, improves legislation, and proposes instruments that support and ensure local development. Heading into COP 28, let’s keep this collaborative vision front and center and focus our efforts on uniting forces and constructing ecosystems that facilitate agreement while resolving existing tensions. This is the best approach to achieving a fair, efficient, and timely transition.

Leire Pajín is the Former Minister of Health of Spain and SDSN Spain Chair. Candela de la Sota is SDSN Spain’s Manager. Alejandro Rijo is SDSN Spain’s Communications Coordinator. David Ribó is a postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology and a SDSN Spain collaborator.