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Net zero has transformative potential for disadvantaged Victorians

Over the next year, the Victorian Government will deliberate on its 2035 target for emissions reduction to mitigate climate change, and ideas to achieve it. Jesuit Social Services recently made a submission to the independent panel tasked with making recommendations to the Government. In it, we argued for a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions alongside a range of measures to achieve a just transition.

The Federal Election saw four traditionally Liberal seats in Victoria flip to independent candidates that largely campaigned on climate policy, making clear that hunger for ambitious climate action is strong. The latest science shows that Australian states and territories can and should aim to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035 — 15 years earlier than the Victorian Government’s current target. In Victoria, the way we reach net zero and how we support Victorians to cope and adapt with the changes to both climate and economy is an equally important question for policy makers.

Climate change disproportionately impacts some of the most marginalised people and communities. It is people who are homeless or live in low quality housing, rural and remote communities without access to adequate support, or incarcerated people, who are often worst affected by flood, fire, heat and smoke, and least able to recover and adapt. Without a clear plan for transition, the call for a clean energy economy threatens to replicate existing inequities, further marginalising already disadvantaged people,  with the benefits of the new economy largely flowing to a small minority – some of whom previously benefitted from industries that contributed to the climate crisis.

A just transition has transformative potential for Victorians experiencing disadvantage. Jesuit Social Services’ paper, Just transitions – Expanding the conversation, highlights that a just transition must ensure disadvantaged communities receive the help they need to adapt and build resilience, and should also achieve transformational change by addressing the underlying and interrelated drivers of social and ecological vulnerability.

With proximity to, and often deep knowledge of their communities, the community services sector is pivotal to the transition. Community services organisations are on the frontline with their communities, dealing with the impacts of climate change and addressing the underlying drivers of vulnerability. But community services organisations themselves are often highly vulnerable and not well-prepared to respond to climate change or extreme weather events.

In recognising the urgent need to adapt to climate change, Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places is delivering climate adaptation and resilience workshops across metropolitan Melbourne, which strengthen collaboration between community service organisations and local governments to build place-based resilience. We call on the Victorian Government to establish coordinating bodies that facilitate place-based, cross-sector coalitions — with engagement across all levels of government, together with industry, researchers, technical experts, environmental organisations, the community services sector, and communities themselves — to work towards a just transition.

To be just, the transition must prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be supported to adapt to the changes in climate and economy and play a central role in delivering transition, so they can participate in and benefit from the new economy. The Victorian Government should invest in community-led Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives such as community-led renewable energy projects which deliver access to affordable clean energy and job opportunities.

A just transition must also be place-based. Jesuit Social Services’ Dropping off the Edge  research into place-based disadvantage, conducted over more than 20 years, has found that  a small number of communities across the country continue to experience a complex web of disadvantage. The most recent report published last year, Dropping off the Edge 2021, found that the most economically and socially disadvantaged communities also experience disproportionate levels of environmental injustice, represented by indicators such as air pollution, heat stress, and reduced access green open space.

We believe that place-based approaches — which are long-term, community-led approaches to social, economic and ecological challenges in a particular place — can address the complex and interconnected web of challenges needed for Victorian communities to thrive. In 2021, we established the Centre for Just Places to support and enable place-based approaches. Alongside strong investment in system-wide initiatives, a just transition calls on the Victorian Government to commit to ongoing support for place-based initiatives that prioritise equity in social and environmental infrastructure, affordable housing and employment opportunities.

In a just transition, all Victorians must have access to safe, energy efficient and sustainable housing. A worsening climate coupled with the lack of adequate housing for sections of our community is already exacerbating existing inequities in health and wellbeing. In Victoria’s public housing buildings, sweltering summers have driven residents to take extreme measures to keep themselves cool, such as sleeping in stairwells. Already, heatwaves kill more people in Australia than all other natural disasters combined and are only set to worsen.

The average energy performance of existing homes in Victoria is only 1.8 stars under the 10-star Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme, compared with the mandatory six stars for newly constructed homes. A study by Sustainability Victoria found that energy efficient upgrades on existing houses could create significant energy savings and reductions in emissions, reducing average household gas use by 58 per cent, as an example. Alongside the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS), we call on the Victorian Government to fund a state-wide trajectory towards a six-star energy rating for all homes in Victoria by 2035, and target retrofits at low-income owner-occupied homes, private rentals and social housing, which are more likely to be older and of poor quality, and to house people experiencing vulnerability to extreme weather.

A just transition in Victoria must create pathways to ‘green jobs’ in marginalised communities. Almost five years ago, Jesuit Social Services opened our Ecological Justice Hub in Brunswick, which aims to demonstrate ways to realise ecological justice with communities most at risk from climate change and economic transitions. The Hub provides skills, training and employment support into green economy jobs for people experiencing barriers to employment. A just transition calls on the Victorian Government to increase training and education pathways into employment in clean energy, land care and management, and other regenerative and sustainable industries: activities that reduce our climate risk and build the economy of the future.

A just transition to zero greenhouse gas emissions necessitates moving away from damaging economic and social systems, including Victoria’s reliance on imprisonment. Jesuit Social Services’ recent discussion paper, Prisons, climate and a just transition, demonstrates that incarcerated people are some of the hardest hit during extreme weather events, which currently pose a serious threat to prisoner’s health and lives in Australia. The paper argues that instead of investing in prisons and designing harsher and more inflexible sentences, we need to resource prevention, therapeutic and restorative programs, and implement community-led alternatives to imprisonment that hold people accountable for their actions in a meaningful way.

A transition to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 has transformative potential for Victorians hit first, worst and hardest by climate change, but transition must be just — providing opportunities for people experiencing disadvantage to shape the changes, participate in, and benefit from the new clean energy economy.

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