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Developing Just Outcomes in Australian Environmental Policies

One of the key challenges of academic work lies in merging the theoretical with the practical, in order to engage the everyday lives of citizens, serve as a source of insight, and have real impact on the crucial issues we face.

Image by Giorgio Travota on Unsplash

A new SEI-led project on environmental justice is examining important conceptual questions about the meaning of just policies on issues such as how communities can locate and access quality food, how we can sustainably support the energy needs of modern lifestyles, and what can and should be done to adapt our communities and environments to the disruption of increasingly unpredictable and severe impacts of climate change.

“The question is not simply how basic needs be met, but rather how can these needs be met without undermining the lives and needs of other people, other living creatures, and living systems.”

For many, justice lay at the heart of these and a plethora of environmental concerns. The question is not simply how basic needs be met, but rather how can these needs be met without undermining the lives and needs of other people, other living creatures, and living systems. The evidence and impact of systemic environmental injustice is clear, with day-today examples around the world of climate extremes impacting vulnerable communities, rampant rates of extinction, toxic industrial waste polluting bodies and ecosystems, and the desecration of natural places and the communities they support for profit. At multiple scales, the social, spatial and temporal distribution of environmental risks and benefits is deeply unequal. This situation is intensifying as some groups are able to draw on financial resources in ways that consolidate their advantage, while leaving others especially vulnerable.

Co-led by Sydney Environment Institute Director Professor David Schlosberg in conjunction with RMIT Associate Professor Lauren Rickards and ANU’s Dr Rebecca Pearse, a new research project will address the theoretical and practical challenges in the development of just environmental and social outcomes in Australian environmental policies. Spanning three years, this interdisciplinary research will interrogate the multiple ways the theories and discourses of environmental justice are changing, and identify how to design and implement more environmentally just public policy in practice. The central aim of this project is to foster more just social and environmental outcomes by identifying opportunities to improve environmental justice theory and its integration into policy, particularly around climate adaptation, urban food, and energy transition policies in Australia.

The idea of environmental justice faces two major stresses – one in theory, the other in practice. First, widening practical engagement with environmental justice is expanding its theoretical scope, meanings, and links with other issues. The intersecting physical, social, philosophical, and political challenges and complexities of 2020 and beyond are shifting foundational assumptions in environmental justice theory in both scholarship and activism. Secondly, after thirty years of environmental justice activism, it is clear environmental injustices are intensifying and multiplying. Even in areas where policy processes and public policy were designed to address environmental injustice, deficits in policy reforms are inadequate. We will be examining the development of a more far-reaching, integrated and flexible environmental justice discourse, and designing ways to achieve just policy outcomes.

“This work responds to demands for more just food, climate adaptation, and energy transition policy in Australia and globally.”

This work will proceed in two major phases, examining environmental justice (EJ) in theory and practice. First, the project will employ Q methodology to empirically examine the discourses emerging and circulating about EJ globally, how those involved in EJ work think about it, and what lessons such EJ discourse offers to both scholarship and policy design. Second, the project will then focus on the cases of urban food, climate adaptation, and energy transition policies in Australia to analyse how the above insights about EJ could help make Australian policies more just, effective, and integrated in the face of growing complexities and challenges.

This work responds to demands for more just food, climate adaptation, and energy transition policy in Australia and globally. These areas form important horizons for environmental justice theory and practice, and the future of a fair and enjoyable lifestyle for all Australians, human and non-human. There is a pressing need for a more thorough, integrated understanding of environmental justice and its effective application to discussions about key policies in the development of just and sustainable lives and communities.

More about the Just Food and Energy Project here.