We have to make society sustainable – But how can this be done fairly?

According to Professor of Environmental Policy Janne Hukkinen, supporting disadvantaged people in transitions, breaking free from livelihoods based on fossil fuels and identifying the power wielded by influential opinion leaders are among the measures needed for success.

Climate change and the loss of biodiversity pose fateful challenges to humanity, making it clear that we have to reshape society and our way of life into something more sustainable.

Implementing such change fairly means that the transition is realised by taking into account all groups of people so that those in a disadvantaged position are not further impoverished, for example, as costs increase. Furthermore, sustainability also entails recognising the fact that the environment, animals and plants included, has rights.

In other words, the sustainability transition must be carried out in a comprehensively fair manner, and key to this is identifying those from whose perspective the related change can be considered fair.

“We have to start taking rapid measures now. We have to accept that the transition to a sustainable society will not be smooth, but wrought with unavoidable conflicts. And yet, attempts can be made to alleviate these conflicts,” says Janne Hukkinen, professor of environmental policy at the University of Helsinki.

According to Hukkinen, any change taking place in society constitutes a turning point, which are always traumatic experiences. He points to the concept of path dependency, or circumstances where earlier choices affect future options. To put it another way, systems whose characteristics are resistant to change have been put in place.

“Technical solutions based on fossil fuels are one example of such dependency. They have been consolidated for such a long time that it’s difficult to break away from such an extensive system.”

Path dependencies can make unfairness long-term in nature, which is why they should be examined.

“We should avoid creating new path dependencies that will turn into burdens in the future,” Hukkinen stresses.

Direct transition support for the disadvantaged

When working toward a fair and sustainable society, the role of those in a weaker position is a key question to answer: how can they be supported when transitioning, for example, to increasingly low-emission modes of transport?

“Not many people with a low income can afford to invest in, say, an electric car. They drive traditional internal combustion engine cars for as long as they can. At the same time, the price of fuel will go up in the future.”

According to Hukkinen, the transition to lower emissions should be subsidised in one way or another.

“Electric cars could be made more affordable to those with a low income who need a car. Such subsidies should be targeted directly at consumers,” Hukkinen says.

Subsidies cannot go on forever. Instead, they have to be made temporary, as was done with wind power.

Substituting livelihoods for peat producers

Hukkinen says that another question central to a fair transition is the disengagement from polluting technologies, such as peat production.

Peat is a fossil fuel whose extraction turns the environment upside down and whose effect on the climate is substantial. The matter is particularly controversial in Finland, as roughly half of energy recovery from peat globally takes place here.

Hukkinen thinks peat production should be discontinued in Finland under sensible regulation.

“The practice of the producers’ livelihood should be smoothly discontinued and transitioned to other fields. It will not be easy, but it must be done.”

Consequently, a new profession to substitute for their old one should be innovated for peat producers, instead of just handing out monetary compensation.

“In one way or another, they should also be integrated into the new system,” Hukkinen points out.

Powerful holdouts slowing down change

As a third key issue, Hukkinen highlights powerful groups of people whose level of income and education is high, making them influential. The voice of the powerful in delaying change has to be taken into account, as some of these people are complaining and will continue to prominently complain about changes associated with sustainability.

“Influential people such as President Donald Trump of the United States play a key role in these power politics, as many individuals with a low income in particular are influenced by the populist rhetoric of powerful decision-makers.”

“Those in strong positions have better opportunities to highlight the fact that they are being deprived of benefits,” Hukkinen notes.

Weighing pros and cons in environmental terms

In the future, the environment will pose increasingly substantial preconditions for human activity – at least it should do so.

“How the interaction between humans and the environment is approached in the application of law, for example, in conjunction with mining projects is a key factor. If the benefits for humans are considered great, negative environmental effects are nowadays more easily accepted,” says Hukkinen.

Still, Hukkinen believes that the principle of caution is becoming increasingly dominant, meaning that considerable risk of environmental destruction caused by projects tips the balance more often.

“The linkage between humans and the environment requires considering the rights of all involved parties,” he states.