How Can We Make Bristol’s Transition a Just One?
This piece is written in Plain English to make it accessible to more people. Words that might not be clear are in bold to show that an explanation of them can be found in the jargon buster at the end.
In 2020, there were plans to pedestrianise St Marks Road to lower car use and make the air cleaner. Named 2019’s ‘greatest street in Britain’, the road has a strong and diverse community with many successful businesses. Yet those on the road weren’t talked to early or fully enough when making theplan, so people grew afraid the changes would mean shops would shut. Though research shows that pedestrianisation tends to be good for businesses, over 4,000 people signed a petition against the plan and when it was dropped many called it a victory ‘for the community’.
The case is complicated and a full overview can’t be given here. However, it’s an important place to start when talking about Bristol’s just transition because it shows how environmental action often fails if it isn’t made alongside communities and with justice at its centre.
Just transition is an idea that today is used by everyone from governments to the businesses driving climate change, like the fossil fuel company Shell. Yet the idea came from American chemical unions in the 1970s and working-class Black and ethnic minority communities affected by the pollution the companies were making, and who had been pushing for environmentalaction as part of the Black rights movement for many years. These groups understood that many jobs hurt workers, communities and the environment, but they didn’t agree with the idea that you could either have environmentalaction or jobs. Instead, they argued that support could be given so that the changes could happen in a way that meant workers could be moved to other jobs that would be healthier for both them and the planet.
The political and economic situation in which they were working is very different from Bristol’s. In some areas where the unions worked, a third of local people worked forfossil fuel and chemical companies. Bristol has some large employers that harm the environment, such as the docks, the Ministry of Defence, Bristol Airport and many aerospace companies, but they don’t employ most people in the city. However, recent work, such as that of the Climate Justice Alliance, has been returning to the roots of just transition to show that it’s relevant even when there is less risk of jobs being lost, showing that it should be about protecting the rights of both workers and disadvantaged communities. This is important to Bristol, which has made leading declarations promising to stop the loss of nature and stop the city adding to climate change by 2030. Meeting these goals will mean big changes that will have an impact on life in every part of the city. Such change can be a threat to communities, but it can also be an opportunity.
It was this thinking that led the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to make the Community Climate Action project, which supports disadvantagedgroups to take environmentalaction in a way that creates benefits for their communities. I led on this for the Bristol Disability Equality Forum and, through many community conversations, co-wrote the world’s first community climate action plan by and for Disabled people.
Disabled people are one of the groups most at risk from climate change, yet we are also hurt by environmentalaction that doesn’t think about our needs. For example, Bristol’s climate strategy says that car journeys in the city should be lowered by 40 per cent by 2030. This action is important, but if accommodations aren’t made it could be bad for Disabled people who will never be able to walk, cycle or use buses. It could also be bad for the many Disabled people who could travel in these ways but can’t because Bristol’s buses, bike lanes and pavements are often inaccessible. What our plan showed, however, is that environmentalaction could be good for Disabled people if our needs are thought about. Since Bristol is going to have to make changes to its transport to meet its environmentalpromises, the city could make it more accessible at the same time for not much more money. This would be a big win for Disabled people, which would be much harder to get if pushed for separately from environmental work.
Transition, if done in a justway, should make our city fairer and healthier. While just transition has become a bit of a business buzzword, the idea belongs to workers, and to grassroots and disadvantaged communities. These groups must use it to challenge power and show that we could have a better future. Our current society is unfair and isn’t working for many people, so environmental action doesn’t mean things will get worse if we push for utopian climate action. By utopian I don’t mean perfect, fictional or unlikely, but action that understands that we deserve a societythat is better for everyone.
This isn’t dreaming but being practical. The case of St Marks Road shows that transition won’t work if it isn’t just. Climatechange and the loss of nature are the result of a society that ignores the value of different people, species, ways of living and knowledge to allow them to be misused so that a few businesses can make a lot of money. So fixing climate change isn’t possible if we don’t start valuing all life. This is particularly important for Bristol, which was built using money from the trade in enslaved people and needs to face the injustice in its past and present if it wants to make a just environmental future.
This thinking has led to the writing of a just transition declaration for Bristol. In 2022, I joined a climate justice exchange to the USA with three other Bristol women working on climate and community – Kirsty Hammond, for the Heart of BS13; Rachel Moffat, for Bristol Energy Network; and Olivia Sweeney, for Black and Green Ambassadors. The trip showed us that our city could lead on just climate change action if it wanted to. On our return we asked the mayor for a just transition declaration to be written for Bristol. It was our belief that this is needed to support the city’s Climate Emergencyand Ecological Emergencydeclarationsand strategiesto show what it means for their work to be just.
The mayor supported the idea and told us to write it. What followed was many conversations with disadvantagedcommunities across the city. These quickly showed how complicated making a fully justtransitionis for Bristol. While some organisations have a lot more power to make the work happen than others (like local politicians) most groups, from businesses to schools to communities, also have an important role. It would be impossible for us to tell each of these what justaction means for them. Yet ways of working did become clear, so we wrote the declarationas ten principles that every organisation can sign up to and follow to make their environmentalwork just. These are:
- We will include the ideas and knowledge of disadvantagedpeople in all of our work.
- We will make sure that everyone can have good future-proof jobs.
- We will support disadvantagedgroups to take action that is good for the planet and nature.
- We will support individual people to make changes through making the big changes that make it easy for them to act.
- We will make sure that the costs and benefits of the changes are shared out fairly.
- We will make our ways of talking accessible.
- We will act in ways that support the people experiencing the worst climate change and nature loss in other places.
- We will make sure that everyone is more able to cope with the difficulties made by climate change and nature loss.
- We will make our physical places good for everyone.
- We will make our organisation fair and bring the principles from the declaration into our work from the start.
These principlesare only the start. To bring thejust transitionto life and make changes stick, organisations across the city will need to shape their work around the principlesand challengethemselves to do better every year. It will mean having tricky conversations without easy answers and pushing back on the laziness that lets old injusticescontinue. We will need to use our imagination to see how work can be done in new and fairer ways, even when there isn’t much money or time.
While cases like St Marks Road hopefully won’t happen again, other mistakes will. The transition won’t be perfect. What matters is that the city listens and uses failures as a chance to grow. Just transitionmeans accepting that we all need to do better and must learn from people who are different from us. None of this will be easy, but it is exciting and hopeful, because a justtransition is about working together to make a fair and healthy Bristol that everyone deserves to live in.
Accommodations: Making changes so that people’s needs are thought about and met.
Aerospace: To do with making things like planes and spaceships.
Benefits: The good things that come out of something.
Buzzword: A phrase that is fashionable and used often but not always in a meaningful way.
Challenge: Pointing out problems and suggesting better ways of doing things.
Climate change: The planet is getting dangerously hot because of how people are using dirty fuels like petrol. This is leading to lots of problems locally and around the world.
Declaration: Something that is said to show how someone thinks and feels about something. It is a promise to act in a certain way.
Disadvantaged groups: People who are treated unfairly because of the group they belong to or because they don’t have much money.
Diverse: When a group is made up of lots of different types of people.
Ecological: To do with nature.
Economic: The part of something that is to do with the money involved.
Environmental: Anything that is for the planet and nature.
Exchange: When a group of people go somewhere to learn from the people there and share ideas from where they come from.
Fossil fuel: The dirty fuels that are dug up, like oil and gas, that are mostly causingclimate change.
Grassroots: Groups and actions that come from everyday people who might not have much power on their own.
Imagination: Being able to think and dream of things that currently aren’t real.
Just transition: When a place changes how it works and lives so that it isn’t causing damage to the planet and nature, but also makes sure that this is done in a fair way for workers and communities.
Just/justice: Acting in a way that is right or fair. Injustice is when something isn’tfair.
Opportunity: When something has a chance of making things better if that chance is worked towards.
Pedestrianise / pedestrianisation: When cars are stopped from using an area and it is changed so it is just for people who are walking or rolling.
People from an ethnic minority background: People who are from a race or culture that isn’t the most common in the country that they live in.
Principles: A set of statements that says how something is going to be done. They show what is thought to be important in how something is done.
Union: An organisation of workers that have come together to push for their rights to be met.
Utopian: A way of thinking and doing things that aims for a society that works well and where everyone is happy.
Slavery: When people have their freedom taken away and made to work for someone else.
Society: A large group of people who have certain ways of living, thinking about things, doing things, and making decisions.
Species: Groups of animals, plants and other forms of life.
Strategy: A plan for how something is going to be done.
Threat: Something that has a big chance of being bad for a group unless action isn’t taken to stop it.
Values: What someone cares about.
Emma Geen is a Disabled climate activist and author. She co-wrote the world’s first community climate action plan by and for Disabled people for Bristol.
This article appears in Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol, a book bringing together essays from over 30 contributors, addressing some of the challenges the city faces and sharing ideas about how we might meet them. From dealing with the past, the future of social care, culture and housing to building a city of aspiration, the book looks to promote learning about the future of Bristol and encourage new ideas to come forward.
Free copies of Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol will be available at selected Festival of the Future City events in October 2023, or you can find articles featured in the book at bristolideas.co.uk/bristol650book.