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Initiating a Just Energy Transition in Germany: Lessons from across the Atlantic
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In May 2022, the Transatlantic Climate Bridge hosted an essay competition on the topic of just transitions in Germany, the US and Canada. We will be presenting the winning essays via our blog. This essay, by TCB-Essay Contest Winner, Teresa Artho, identifies three key steps Germany can take to facilitate a just energy transition and collaborate with its Atlantic partners.

Broadly speaking, the term energy transition describes a substantial structural change in an energy system, as has been induced by the invention of the steam engine and commercial discovery of crude oil. However, both of these advances came with a great deal of injustice, the aftermath of which can be observed to this day. In order to avoid a similar outcome for the ongoing transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon energy system, it is therefore critical to consider social implications and take proactive measures to minimize any negative impacts.

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to point out what can be done within Germany to promote equity and codetermination in the course of the multi-faceted process of just energy transition. In doing so, I will focus on democratic processes, acknowledging identity, and re-educating workers currently employed in the fossil fuel industry. I will also discuss the potential for mutual learning between the United States and Canada on one side and Germany on the other, along with differences that must be considered.

A first crucial step for Germany to make its energy transition a just transition is to include citizens from all walks of life in idea-generation and agenda-setting processes. One method of achieving this on a regional level are deliberative mini-publics that function as a bottom-up element. This approach is currently being trialed in several municipalities and so far, seems highly popular with attendees and experts. For such mini-publics, it is essential that participants are selected at random and each person is encouraged to actively engage in discussions to make voices from a wide variety of social strata heard.

On the national level, tripartite structures, which are typical for the neo-corporatist model of interest representation, might pose a sustainable solution. Such cooperation between the state, employers’ organizations, and labor unions has been utilized in the past, one example being the “Bündnis für Arbeit” that aided in combating unemployment between 1998 and 2003. An advantage of tripartite strategy is that it is largely grounded in consensus-building, rather than competition. The state herein has a chance to balance between the demands of either side, whereas in a pluralist model of interest representation, only the concerns of groups that assert themselves in the competition for influence are taken into account. Tripartism thereby lessens the systemic hierarchies that arise from pluralism due to differences in financial resources, consequently strengthening the position of labor unions.

Nevertheless, the implementation of such an approach comes with a number of challenges. For one thing, there presently exist several umbrella organizations on the employer’s side, and the DGB (German Trade Union Federation) on the worker’s side is not binding for its members. This makes institutionalized coordination between the social partners difficult because many veto players with diverging views and demands must be included. Furthermore, the bargaining power of said alliances diminishes due to low union density and the gradual erosion of corporatism. It follows that institutionalized cooperation would, in all likelihood, not stringently follow the neo-corporatist model and be limited to certain projects. Moreover, with relevant dimensions beyond the classic class cleavage, cooperation will inescapably have to extend to include non-tripartite interest groups such as environmental organizations and those standing up for certain communities.

Another key aspect to keep in mind when designing any transition is identity. Identifying with a profession or occupational field can serve as a refuge, particularly for those who have few alternative sources of self-worth. Disregarding this can cause strong feelings of resentment by individuals that sense they are losing status, a danger here being that such sentiments are instrumentalized by extremist parties and politicians using populist tactics. These groups often also question the well-researched realities of climate change, which in turn may lead to immense political backlash, hampering efforts towards a swift and fair energy transition.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that education is an essential factor here. It is arguably key to viewing situations from different perspectives as well as understanding the full scope and necessity of the energy transition. What is more, large numbers of uneducated laborers will find themselves confronted with the possibility of losing their jobs due to the changes occurring as a result of an energy transition. Likewise, countless professions will be transformed in one way or another, which is why a further vital point will be providing the tools necessary for workers to adapt to the shifting job demands. One way to achieve this would be offering and incentivizing part-time courses or regular workshops that are easily accessible and not conflicting with current commitments. At this point, institutionalized tripartite negotiations could come into play again.

To answer the second part of the prompt, we must first look at differences between the countries in terms of their respective political systems, where the contrast between the United States and Germany is particularly stark. The US follows a purely pluralist model of interest representation, making the above-described tripartite approach greatly unfeasible. Likewise, the countries’ education and occupational training systems differ vastly. In this context, Germany’s dual training, meaning trainees splitting their time between on-the job activities and off-the-job instruction, could prove momentous as a model to build upon in respect of reskilling and addressing future workforce needs.

Another distinction is that, unlike in Germany, within both the US and Canada reside Indigenous communities that are on the front lines of climate change and its impacts. Although Native Americans are often thought of as one large entity, it has to be noted that among the numerous Native Tribes, people’s attitude towards fossil fuel varies. While some propose the expansion of extraction within coal- or oil-rich reserves in order to combat poverty, others strictly oppose this due to environmental and health concerns. Hence, in North America, just transition must additionally include working closely with these individual communities and pointing out the great potential for economic betterment through renewable energy while at the same time allowing for autonomy concerning the planning and realization of projects.

All this points to the conclusion that incorporating voices from the entire range of ethnic and social groups in a given country along with enhanced cooperation is vital for a successful and just energy transition. Moreover, the concerns of those standing to lose from the carbon phase-out need to be taken seriously while a proactive approach centered around education can prepare affected individuals for upcoming changes.

Apart from this, it is worth mentioning that the problem of climate change and the energy transition affects every level of governance, from supranational institutions to local communities, making good coordination and joint efforts indispensable. Further, there are numerous other factors, such as pace of action and inequality in access to electricity, that I was unable to elaborate on in this short essay, which is why this should be viewed as a compilation of propositions rather than a full plan.

The above paragraphs also attempted to demonstrate that, due to systemic and cultural differences between countries, just transition is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Nevertheless, I would argue that a great deal can be gained through mutual learning and partnerships; after all, cooperation has time and again proven to be more powerful than competition.

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Teresa Artho

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University of Konstanz