With average global temperatures on course to rise by 3.6°C by the end of the century, there is an urgent need for worldwide action to ensure a sustainable future for the planet and its inhabitants. In this series, contributor Diane Bérard examines why organizations should make the socio-ecological transition a core driver of their strategy – and how to do it.
The February 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was crystal clear: if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue at the current rate, average global temperatures will be 3.6°C higher by the end of the century. Consequences will be more dramatic in North America, especially in the eastern region, where we can expect an increase of 3.9°C. There is an urgent need for worldwide action on climate-resilient development, which combines strategies to adapt to climate change with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to support sustainable development. The biggest challenge of the 21st century, therefore, is a “Mission Transition”: a mix of social and environmental change to ensure a sustainable future for the planet and its inhabitants. Mission Transition is enabled by the cumulative decisions, choices, and actions of governments, civil society, the private sector, and other organizations.
The bad news: the window of opportunity to enable Mission Transition is narrowing. The good news: it is still open.
The bad news: the window of opportunity to enable Mission Transition is narrowing. The good news: it is still open. Progress in adaptation planning and implementation has been observed across all sectors and regions, generating positive results. For example, effective adaptation strategies and supportive public policies enhance food availability and stability and reduce climate risk for food systems while increasing their sustainability. And numerous adaptation responses exist for urban systems – but their feasibility and effectiveness are constrained by institutional, financial, and technological access.
The sixth IPCC report clarifies the “what”: “instruments that incorporate adaptation, such as policy and legal frameworks, behavioral incentives, and economic instruments that address market failures, such as climate risk disclosure, inclusive and deliberative processes strengthen adaptation actions by public and private actors.”
In our Mission Transition series, we will introduce four non-profits, one social economy enterprise, and two civil society groups that are all working in the transition zone in Quebec. Their actions impact food security, affordable housing, urban greening, waste reduction, active transportation, and the energy transition.
I refuse to explore what happens if we do nothing. It would lead to huge social injustice.Mélanie McDonald, Chemins de transitions
IPCC experts also point us toward the “how”: “inclusive governance prioritizes equity and justice in adaptation planning, and implementation leads to more effective and sustainable adaptation outcomes. These approaches, including multi-stakeholder co-learning platforms, transboundary collaborations, community-based adaptation, and participatory scenario planning, focus on capacity-building and meaningful participation of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups and their access to key resources to adapt.”
But first, let’s explore what three Quebec experts have to say about Mission Transition. They are Mélanie McDonald, executive director of Chemins de Transition; sociologist René Audet, the Research Chair on Ecological Transition at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM); and economist Mathieu Dufour, a professor in the Université du Québec en Outaouais’s (UQO) social science department.
What is the transition?
“The transition is a response to induced scarcity. Our economic model created multiple scarcities based on exponential production and consumption: fossils fuels, minerals, water, et cetera. I refuse to explore what happens if we do nothing. It would lead to huge social injustice. I do not want that life for my kids. It is urgent to imagine paths to transition,” insists Mélanie McDonald, of Chemins de transitions. This non-profit, launched in 2019, is a co-creation of the Université de Montréal and Espace pour la vie, a complex that includes five museums dedicated to nature. Its mission? To initiate a debate on the transition by identifying the most promising paths for a desirable future in Quebec. It translates into collectively finding answers to three challenges: How do we make the digital and ecological transitions converge? How can we feed more and more humans healthfully without depleting the earth’s resources in the context of climate change? How can we inhabit the Quebec territory in a sober and resilient way in a context of environmental transition?
Transition is a given. The question is: will we choose how we adapt, or will it be forced upon us?Mélanie McDonald
To find answers, working groups map possible futures for 2040. Those possible futures are coming events and shocks drawn from literature reviews and experts’ interviews. Then, desired futures are identified for 2040. “Transition is a given. The question is: will we choose how we adapt, or will it be forced upon us? Possible futures will be forced upon us. Desired futures are our choices,” says McDonald. Once desired futures are identified, paths are determined to reach these desired futures. Finally, those paths are detailed with specific actions.
What political, social, and technological changes will be necessary? What solutions already exist? What resources are available, and what is lacking? A report will be published for each of the three challenges and will be presented to private and public decision-makers: the digital paths report by spring 2022, the food report in fall 2022, and the territory report in winter 2022/2023.
The transition narratives
The Chemins de transitions workshops bring together different universes that do not necessarily share the same vision. “When the government talks about transition, it is not the same transition citizens refer to,” says René Audet, who studies transition narratives to understand how different groups position themselves. For example, governments have a technocentric vision that advocates technological substitution. For example, they address the climate crisis by replacing fossil fuel cars with electric cars. “Everything is about market opportunities, never about constraints. In this narrative, the government can influence citizens to adopt the desired behaviour, using the carrot and the stick,” Audet says.
We should finance social links. Every time a group of people collaborates on a neighbourhood project, they learn to count on each other. That builds resilience.René Audet, UQAM
On the other hand, citizens’ vision is about social reorganization; their actions address their living environment. Projects aim to create social links and build community resilience through greening, urban farming, and car-sharing. “Technology is part of the equation but as a mean, not an end. For example, in Rosemont–Petite-Patrie borough, the citizens’ group Solon tests geothermal energy for the residents of a housing agglomeration,” Audet says. (An upcoming article in this series presents Solon in detail.) “It is about cleaner energy and energy autonomy and about social links,” he adds. Audet collaborates with the non-profit Le Campus de la transition to classify transition narratives. These narratives can be examined according to their reach – a borough, a city, a region, a country; their objective – quality of life, social justice, carbon neutrality; or their belief – social transformation brings environmental change or technology regulation induces ecological change.
Where should transition finance go?
“We should finance social links. Every time a group of people collaborates on a neighbourhood project, they learn to count on each other. That builds resilience. And we will need lots of it in the coming years,” Audet says. But projects alone won’t do the job; regulation is essential. “We need to pressure governments to implement binding transition laws. Citizens’ lobbies need funding to apply efficient regulation pressure. Carrots are not enough. You can’t just say, ‘Here are incentive programs. You can be a good citizen/organization and take advantage of them. But it is okay if you do not want to.’ You need sticks, consequences,” Audet adds.
It is no secret that the transition will create winners and losers. The “green” sector will thrive, while the “brown” industries will decelerate. Those workers need help, Professor Mathieu Dufour reminds. Requalification requires enormous investments, and that is only part of the solution. “You can’t just find new jobs for brown-industries workers,” he says. “You need systemic change. There is no transition possible within our economic system, which is extractive and linear. You extract natural resources from the ground. You produce goods that you bury underground when you have no more use for them. Where you extract minerals to produce electric batteries or fossil-fuel motors, what have you gained if you build the same amount and bury both underground?”
Back to basics
The transition is not about what we will replace but about what we will give up, Audet concludes. “Switching to bio food won’t eliminate food waste. And electric cars won’t save us if the sales keep growing exponentially. The issue is quantity; we simply produce too much of everything.”
So what will our life be like on the other side of the transition? “It will be about sobriety and sharing,” says McDonald. With smaller homes and shared spaces as the norm – gardens, playrooms for kids, communal kitchens, et cetera. “And we need to address the ‘not in my backyard’ issue. If we want local production, we need local factories, and [we need to] find how to manage the territory to cohabit with them.”
How could foundations contribute?
Foundations could accelerate the transition by funding pooling initiatives, Audet suggests. “Pooling saves resources and raises impact. La Cantine pour tous is a great example. It brings together non-profits distributing breakfast in schools. Sharing kitchens and trucks takes a tool off their budget and widens possibilities. Food systems could all benefit from pooling.”
Funding transition … means financing organizations and citizens’ groups who change the extracting systzem.Mathieu Dufour, UQO
Foundations could contribute to systemic change, Dufour says. The philanthropic sector is used to compensating for society’s flaws. The socio-ecological transition is an opportunity to fund a new community organization. “Let’s take the food system,” he says. “Food banks are first-line solutions, but they work within the system. Funding is needed to transform the food chain, from growing to distributing.” Financing co-ops would be a good option in the agro-food sector and other industries; co-operatives don’t relocate overnight to where labour costs are lower or taxation more accommodating, which makes for less vulnerable communities. “The problem with the existing economic system is that capital is mobile; people are not,” Dufour says.
“When there are no more natural resources to extract, companies pack up and dig somewhere else or switch to another activity. Funding transition does not translate into compensating orphan communities. It means financing organizations and citizens’ groups who change the extracting system,” he concludes.
In the coming weeks, we will profile seven Quebec organizations that are part of Mission Transition, beginning with Insertech, a non-profit that trains unemployed adults to repair electronic appliances considered waste and offer them to the public at affordable prices.