Italy’s Green Transition Must Be a Fair Transition

Windfarm on a clear day
LifeGate
Italy
Italy’s Green Transition Must Be a Fair Transition

The pandemic and the energy crisis have changed our lives and our economies. However many countries have seen the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate the process towards an ecological transition. “This transition will work for everyone and will be fair, or it will not work at all,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the launch speech of the Green Deal in December 2019. It was a fundamental moment for the economic and social policy of the European Union and a clear message to all citizens: the actions that are taken in the coming years to achieve an ecological transition must also be supported by significant investments, inclusive policies and long-term visions. The goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 will, on the one hand, lead to a profound change in the production system, with the opening up of new economic opportunities. But on the other hand, it risks affecting entire sectors, where people will see their work change or, in the worst case scenario, disappear.

Ursula von der Leyen
'This transition will work for everyone and it will be fair, or it won't work at all,' European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during her December 2019 Green Deal launch speech / Credit: Krisztian Bocsi for Bloomberg via Getty Images.

“We have the ambition to mobilize 100 billion euros specifically for regions and sectors that are most vulnerable,” von der Leyen emphasized. This is what is known as "just transition," a mechanism jointly designed with funds from Next Generation EU to ensure that the ecological transition will be fair. The system also includes a Just Transition Fund designed mainly to support regions and sectors that will be most affected by the transition due to their dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse-gas-intensive industrial processes.

A Sami reindeer herder with wind turbines in the background
A Sami reindeer herder near Storheia wind farm / Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand via Getty Images.

'We don't want those windmills'

Ecological and energy transitions, like all complex issues, hide pitfalls. Such is the case with seven large wind farms built in the Fosen area of Norway, completed in 2020. Two of these, Roan and Storheia, have been installed in the same area where Sami herders traditionally herd their reindeer, causing quite an impact to the business itself and the welfare of the animals. The case reached the Norwegian Supreme Court, which ruled in October 2021 that the construction of the wind farms in these areas violated the civil rights of Indigenous peoples. "The Supreme Court ruling stated that the Sami should have had a voice and be able to be part of the decision-making process," said Aslak Paltto, an ethnic Sami journalist and reindeer herder. Instead, "we were only considered after the wind farm was built. Now we want to use the earnings to go and build the plant somewhere else." The story made international headlines, particularly in late February this year, when Greta Thunberg also joined the Indigenous people's protest in front of the entrance to the Norwegian Ministry of Energy, in Oslo. "More than 500 days after the ruling, we started demanding answers: what will happen now? Will they dismantle the wind farms or not?" continued Paltto. The Indigenous Sami representatives are calling for the removal of the 151 wind turbines and the restoration of the landscape to what it was before the installation.

This is a case that shows how ecological transition cannot be separated from climate and social justice.

"The central point of this case is the fact that the Sami people would have had the right to oppose the construction of the plants," said Paltto. "The Norwegian government built them anyway, without asking us for permission."

As of today, however, it is still unclear what will happen in that area.

Protestors outside the Royal Palace in Oslo
Sami community protests outside Oslo's Royal Palace / Credit: Alf Simensen for NTB and AFP via Getty Images.

What is 'just transition'? 

The case of the wind turbines built without taking into account the social impact on Indigenous peoples, which is probably irreversible, can be taken as an example. But what is 'just transition'? The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines it as the process of making the economy greener in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible for all concerned, creating decent job opportunities and leaving no-one behind. In other words, the transition will not lead us to a different economic and development model if social inequalities remain the same as they are right now.

On the other hand, the ILO itself states how, by 2030, more than 2% of total working hours worldwide could be lost each year due to climate change, either because it will be too hot to work or because workers will have to work at a slower pace. Higher temperatures and heat waves already have an impact on production, which is why countering the climate crisis should also be a focus of social policies. According to a study published in the journal One Earth, and carried out by RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE), stringent climate policies would lead to 8 million more jobs in the global energy sector alone by 2050, mainly due to increases in the solar and wind industries. In short, the transition pays off, both to counter the climate crisis and boost the economy.

Alongside this, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that GDP in the developed and emerging economies of the G20 countries could increase by up to nearly 5% by mid-century, precisely thanks to climate policies. The ILO estimates a creation of 24 million jobs in clean energy generation, electric vehicles and energy efficiency, with a loss of about 6 million jobs—which means a net gain of 18 million jobs. 

A car being made at a factory
One sector that is facing major transitions is the automotive industry / Credit: Milan Jaros for Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Just transition in Italy

Italy is a carbon-intensive country; the so-called hard-to-abate or energy-intensive sectors such as steel, chemicals, ceramics, paper, glass, cement and foundries make up more than 700,000 jobs. This is not counting the automotive sector, which has about 250,000 workers, including 168,000 working on the production line, who are facing changes, including the transition from endothermic to low-carbon engines, electric and hybrid. There are two areas in Italy that are targeted by European funds: Sulcis Iglesiente in Sardinia and the province of Taranto in Puglia. In December 2022, the European Commission announced a budget of 1,211,280,657 euros, including 1,029,588,558 euros of European contribution and 181,692,099 euros of national contribution, which is meant to assist areas affected by coal mining in Sardinia and the steel sector in Puglia.

The interior of the Serbariu mine in Carbonia
Inside the Serbariu mine in Carbonia, which was abandoned in the 1960s / Credit: Fabiano Daddeo for Reda &Co and Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The Taranto area is strongly linked to the former Ilva steel plant, which employs about 10,000 people, with 10,000 more people involved in allied industries. In 2021, a public consultation launched by the region to identify possible areas of intervention had gathered numerous proposals relating to site regeneration and decontamination, land restoration and conversion projects—for example, focusing on waste prevention and reduction. While for Sulcis, plans are leaning towards shifting from coal mining to mining other minerals more in demand in the market, such as nickel and lithium. 

But how do we address the social and cultural—not just economic—issues that fall on local communities once the transition is underway? In this regard, a project called Entrances, Energy Transitions from Coal and Carbon: Effects on Societies, funded through the Horizon 2020 program, has tried to give a holistic answer by studying and analyzing known cases. Specifically for Sulcis, the case study concludes that "as it is taking shape in Sardinia, (the transition) is characterized by a shift toward a more centralized energy system and a centralization of related decision-making, a weak and opaque vision, and a lack of capacity to respond to social and territorial needs." Despite the investments of the companies involved, to date, "the transition to clean energy is not producing a new vision for the Sulcis territory, but rather is producing a divisive effect on the local community, and is further diminishing the autonomy of the territory."

Nonetheless, the research also showed how "the Sulcis area is also endowed with an active civil society, a propensity for innovation and a rich cultural and natural heritage, whose potential to make territory is still untapped." Clearly, the issue remains extremely complex; on the one hand, we know how the ecological transition is a unique opportunity to rethink the entire production system, particularly in climate crisis mitigation strategies. On the other, we are aware that it will have to include all stakeholders, through a long-term and participatory vision that takes into account all segments of the population so that no-one is left behind.


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Italian by LifeGate on June 29, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Wind turbines at the Storheia plant in Norway, which is one of the largest in Europe / Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand for AFP via Getty Images

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