Australia’s mining communities and the energy sector are entering a period of substantial change. And while big change can elicit uncertainty, it also presents opportunities. We spoke with Carla Martinez our Senior Associate, Communities and Social Performance, and Holly Love our National Director of Communications and Engagement about how the Mining & Energy sector can better support transitioning communities.
Supporting a just transition and considering the local context
As we transition away from coal and move towards renewable energy, there are huge opportunities for companies to contribute locally. With much of the focus on the carbon footprint, there is a crucial piece of the puzzle we must not forget - the impacts of this change on regional mining communities.
A report by the OECD describes a ‘just transition’ as ensuring the benefits of sustainable energy are shared, whilst supporting those who stand to lose socially and economically – communities, workers and even countries. In 2021, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), more than 30 nations signed the Just Transition Declaration, committing to support gender equality, social cohesion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as intergenerational equity and young people.
The gaps and opportunities to achieving a just transition are becoming more evident as communities transition to cleaner energy sources. Carla says, “Understanding the skills, assets and needs of communities that are moving away from coal is essential to leverage the opportunities that arise from the energy and transition of minerals developments. In many cases without adequate social transition strategies, many local communities don’t experience the benefits of a new mining or energy development project, especially when local skilled workforce, infrastructure and services are not prepared to respond to project requirements. Communities and projects will benefit from targeted social transition strategies, consultation/stakeholder engagement and action plans and a clear understanding of the community profile, which would ultimately support a just transition.”
The effects of climate change during the transition have shown that those in poverty are disproportionately affected, and economic, gender and other social inequalities are also exacerbated by its effects. Carla adds “A robust understanding of the social context and trends requires comprehensive statistical analysis coupled with the views and aspirations of the community and key stakeholders. This could include input into topics such as accessibility, values, wellbeing, culture and ways of life. Having a robust social and economic baseline strengthens the position of the industry to bring about long-term benefits, which are distributed with equity in mind.”
Ongoing dialogue with stakeholders is key to achieving a just transition
The Just Transition Declaration emphasises the need for community involvement in decision-making and recognises the value of community knowledge and leadership. Holly explains that the best thing a company can do is engage in an ongoing dialogue. “People in coal mining areas such as the Hunter Valley in NSW and across Central West Queensland know the transition is coming. It’s been talked about for years and it’s important to work collaboratively with the community to drive the change, co-designing what the future might look like.”
To support collaboration and empowerment, companies must make sure that information is accessible to all, and that the channels for engagement accurately reflect the community. Holly says, “Traditionally, industry has always favoured Community Consultative Committees (sometimes also called Community Reference Groups) as a way to speak with small groups of community leaders. However, there is a need to move beyond this and foster a common ground between larger groups of people. Deliberative engagement is an approach we use to make sure that representatives are indicative of the demographics of the community. It’s a chance to get everyone involved and provide opportunities for people to have a say irrespective of demographics.
“Whatever method is chosen, we need to ensure there’s something for everyone; face-to-face, online and one-on one consultations and follow-ups. It sounds simple, there needs to be a clear process to handle enquiries and communications. These are things that can be easily overlooked and result in people withdrawing from participation and losing trust in processes.”
A Future Ready™ approach to sharing decision-making and fostering empowerment
While ongoing dialogue is essential, another consideration is shared decision-making and therefore shared responsibility. Carla says, “As coal mines approach closure, having conversations about the desired future land use post-closure and defining the actions required to achieve that vision is a fundamental step to transition. Early conversations about governance arrangements, responsibilities, investment needs and monitoring initiatives can make the difference between generating dependency and promoting autonomy.”
Working with communities can also lead to innovative thinking that benefits both mining companies and local residents. Carla explains, “Our conversations with transitioning communities have allowed us to explore opportunities to retrain workers for new industries. This has been a successful way to repurpose infrastructure and closed sites.”
WSP’s Communities and Social Performance teams have played a key role in supporting transitioning economies, particularly in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. We are currently working with some of Australia’s biggest mining operators to help them achieve their goals for a just transition.
Carla says, “What differentiates our work from others is that we are future focused. While we have a strong evidence-based focus, we also put community and key stakeholder voices at the heart of what we do – thereby promoting their involvement in action plans and decision-making. This encourages the best possible outcomes for local communities, our clients, and key stakeholders. I believe finding that middle ground is key to achieving project success.”
To learn more about how our teams can support your social performance or community engagement projects, contact Carla Martinez or Holly Love.
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