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  • Writer's pictureHarry Ewart-Biggs

Beyond COP: public services for a just transition

Investing in Universal Basic Services (UBS) must be a top priority for environmentalists. The Social Guarantee’s latest report, co-authored with the New Economics Foundation, sets out why this matters, how it can be achieved and what difference it will make.  These arguments tend to be overlooked by green policymakers internationally – even while climate change takes hold at an alarming rate.

The Global Tipping Points Report, presented at COP28, shows that we may be dangerously close to a number of ecosystems warming thresholds, beyond which unmanageable climate breakdown will be irreversible. Pressure is mounting on governments all over the world to decarbonise their economies.

COP is the world’s principal forum for assessing climate change and coordinating mitigation efforts. Critics fear delegates have failed to arrive at agreements this year to keep the target of 1.5C alive, but there have been some important developments. For the first time, COP held a Health Day, showcasing the links between health and climate change. Subsequently, a new Declaration on Climate and Health was signed by over 120 countries and $1bn funding was provided for adaptation programmes with emphasis on the environmental determinants of health.

The formation of a Loss and Damage Fund was also long overdue, 32 years after it was first proposed. Contributions will go to the world’s poorest, most vulnerable countries in compensation for losses faced due to climate change – although several pitfalls have been highlighted: proposed pledges are a tiny fraction of the actual damage costs; contributions from rich polluting nations will be voluntary; and many developing countries are sceptical of the World Bank as its administrator. In its current form, the fund is not fit to fairly support the countries on the frontline of the crisis, who bear little responsibility.

Concluding the summit and documenting the collective position of the international community, the revised final text released on Wednesday December 13th expresses newfound intent to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels. There are loopholes, however. Over three quarters of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from burning oil, gas and coal – to avert catastrophe they need to stay in the ground and renewable alternatives must be rolled out at scale from now. Failure at CO28 to bring forward these changes at the required speed is unsurprising following reports of record numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance and leaked documents revealing hosts’, UAE officials, plans to make oil and gas deals on the sidelines of the summit.

Although COP is the leading multilateral platform for addressing the climate crisis, it is unable to enforce the adoption of policies to wind down fossil fuel activity. Governments around the world must ultimately employ measures on their own accord to ensure their carbon-intensive industries rapidly convert to alternative sustainable energy sources. It is worrying that the onus lies with competing powers in a complex and unstable geopolitical landscape. Even so, the tools and ideas required to reach net zero are readily available.

Nationally led UBS programmes would entail largescale infrastructural and behavioural changes for a truly just transition. Social policy alongside economic transformation must be central to the green agenda – it will fail otherwise.

UBS proposes that the first job of a good government is to meet people’s needs universally and sufficiently. To do so, collective measures are paramount, including public services, investment of public funds and regulation in the public interest. Governments should reshape provisioning systems to ensure people can access the essential services they need within planetary boundaries – from housing, energy and transport, to healthcare, childcare and adult social care.

UBS is grounded in the vision of a ‘safe and just space for humanity’ – it promotes the environmental agenda in three key areas:

  • Cutting GHG emissions and safeguarding planetary boundaries: public services maintain ecological limits more effectively than individual market transactions, directly minimising our fossil fuel dependency. By focusing on meeting needs and preventing harm, UBS can reverse reliance on downstream, resource-intensive services. Instead, it fosters solidarity and sustainable service delivery through procurement and operational changes.

  • Establishing secure social foundations: a mandate to meet needs would compensate for regressive effects of green policies and help build popular support for them. UBS is key to a just transition. Without social justice, democratic governments will fail to reach their climate goals because they will lose the support of their electorates.  

Changing course in time can only be achieved with concerted pressure and action at every level. Collective action to meet everyone’s basic needs within the limits of the natural environment must be at the heart of the agenda.

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