Just Transition is a framework developed by the trade union movement to encompass a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' rights and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production, primarily combating climate change and protecting biodiversity. It has been endorsed internationally by governments in different arenas, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the Paris Agreement, and the Katowice Climate Conference (COP24) and the European Union.
For trade unions, the term Just Transition describes the transition towards a climate‐resilient and low‐carbon economy that maximizes the benefits of climate action while minimizing hardships for workers and their communities. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, needs relevant to a Just Transition will vary in different countries, though overarching policies that are countries need to enact exist, including:
- Sound investments in low‐emission and job-rich sectors and technologies. These investments must be undertaken through due consultation with all those affected, respecting human and labour rights, and Decent Work principles.
- Social dialogue and democratic consultation of social partners (trade unions and employers) and other stakeholders (i.e. communities).
- Research and early assessment of the social and employment impacts of climate policies. Training and skills development, which are key to support the deployment of new technologies and foster industrial change.
- Social protection, along with active labour market policies.
- Local economic diversification plans that support decent work and provide community stability during the transition. Communities should not be left on their own to manage the impacts of the transition as this will not lead to a fair distribution of costs and benefits.
Climate goals and global climate change agreements set standards for a clean economy. In the process, sectors such as energy, manufacturing, agriculture, and forestry, which employ millions of workers, must restructure. There is a concern that periods of economic structural change in the past have left ordinary workers, their families, and communities to bear the costs of the transition to new ways of producing wealth, leading to unemployment, poverty, and exclusion for the working class, in contrast to business owners who are able to afford the transition.
Just Transition addresses this concern by promoting sustainable actions that help workers. Uniting social and climate justice by means of a Just Transition means to comply with demands for coal workers in coal-dependent developing regions who lack employment opportunities beyond coal; fairness for workers in emerging economies that demand their share of the “industrialisation dividend”; fairness for those having to leave their homes as sea levels rise and engulf coastal regions and islands as a consequence of climate change; fairness for populations affected by the air pollution and broader environmental impacts of coal use.
Definition and evolution
The term 'just transition' was first coined by North American unions in the 1990s to describe a support system for workers unemployed due to environmental protection policies. The concept can be considered an ecological application of economic conversion, which was developed in the 1980s when anti-war activists sought to build a coalition with military workers and give them a stake in the peace economy.
In the early 1990s, following the confirmation of fossil fuel-caused global warming, Mazzocchi revived the idea, calling it a “Superfund for workers” – a play on the recently-established Superfund for toxic cleanup. The Superfund for workers would provide financial support and an opportunity for higher education for workers displaced by environmental protection policies. As Mazzocchi put it in 1993, “There is a Superfund for dirt. There ought to be one for workers.” [...] Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs “deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.” [...] “Later environmentalists complained that the word superfund had too many negative connotations, and the name of the plan was changed to Just Transition.” In a 1995 speech, Leopold laid out the Superfund for workers/Just Transition proposal. “The basis for Just Transition is the simple principle of equity.” No toxic-related worker should be asked “to pay a disproportionate tax — in the form of losing his or her job — to achieve the goals” of environmental protection. Instead, “These costs should be fairly distributed across society.”
The term's further evolution is described in an article published by the International Journal on Labour Research:
In 1998, a Canadian union activist, Brian Kohler, published what was going to become one of the first mentions of the Just Transition concept in a union newsletter. It constituted an attempt to reconcile the union movement’s efforts to provide workers with decent jobs and the need to protect the environment. As Kohler had clearly stated previously: “The real choice is not jobs or environment. It is both or neither.”
In ten years, the union movement perception of environmental challenges has evolved and with it the definition, boundaries and scope of the “just transition” needed. Today, “Just Transition” can be understood as the conceptual framework in which the labour movement captures the complexities of the transition towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, highlighting public policy needs and aiming to maximize benefits and minimize hardships for workers and their communities in this transformation.
In a document prepared by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Just Transition is defined as a “tool the trade union movement shares with the international community, aimed at smoothing the shift towards a more sustainable society and providing hope for the capacity of a green economy to sustain decent jobs and livelihoods for all” (ITUC, 2009b).
It is important to note that Just Transition is a supporting mechanism of climate action, and not inaction. Just Transition is not in opposition to, but complements environmental policies. This comforts the idea that environmental and social policies are not contradictory but, on the contrary, can reinforce each other.
This approach to the Just Transition concept was unanimously adopted at the 2nd ITUC Congress, in 2010, when the Congress declared “Just Transition” to be “the” approach to fight climate change:
- Congress is committed to promoting an integrated approach to sustainable development through a just transition where social progress, environmental protection and economic needs are brought into a framework of democratic governance, where labour and other human rights are respected and gender equality achieved (ITUC, 2010).
Other Global Union Federations, representing workers in specific economic sectors, joined this policy approach. The International Transport workers’ Federation (ITF) adopted, at its 2010 Congress, a resolution stating that “while the urgent adoption of these policies is vital to tackle climate change, the ITF and its affiliates must defend the interests of transport workers by fighting to ensure that these policies are implemented in a way which protects jobs and creates new ones through a process of just transition” (ITF, 2010). Federations of industrial workers have also voiced their positions on Just Transition. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), for example, states that “with a Just Transition, we can build a public consensus to move towards more sustainable production” (ICEM, 2009).
The Just Transition framework is a package of policy proposals which addresses the different aspects related to the vulnerability of workers and their communities: uncertainties regarding job impacts, risks of job losses, risks of undemocratic decision-making processes, risks of regional or local economic downturn, among others.
In the past years, a number of organizations have deployed the concept of a Just Transition with respect to environmental and/or climate justice. As unions began to insert the concept of just transition into UNFCCC negotiations and the climate change movement, just transition has evolved into a deliberate push for a transition to both environmentally and socially sustainable employment opportunities and economies. Sometimes refer quite closely to the labor component of a Just Transition, while others[who?] ignore it. In the latter case, "just" simply refers to the necessity of protecting the environment as a public good from private industries that degrade its long term health.
The term "just" has also been applied to concerns about ending war and building a peacetime economy.
In 2015, the ILO published its “Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all,” including guiding principles for a just transition such as the need for strong social consensus and social dialogue, and the importances of fostering international cooperation. The guidelines build upon the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda’s four pillars of social dialogue, social protection, workers’ rights, and employment, highlighting the role of workers, employers, and the government as the main active partners in ensuring just transition. This document calls on international governments to integrate just transition principles into methods for reaching the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, increase access to labor market data, encourage collaboration between relevant national ministries, etcetera.
In April 2015, the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Appalachian Funders Network formed the Just Transition Fund to help communities impacted by the changing coal sector take advantage of President Obama’s POWER Initiative. Through direct investments and direct technical assistance, the Fund’s grants have helped direct almost $24 million of federal funds toward just transition projects.
At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, or COP 21, unions and just transition advocates convinced the Parties to include language regarding just transition and the creation of decent work in the Paris Agreement’s preamble.
At the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, or COP 24, the Heads of State and Government adopted the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration, highlighting the importance of just transition as mentioned in the Paris Agreement, the ILO's Guidelines, and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Declaration encourages all relevant United Nations agencies to implement proceed with its implementation and consider the issue of just transition when drafting and implementing parties' Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs.
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- EU Just Transition Mechanism
- European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
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- Bell, Karen (2020), Working-Class Environmentalism: An Agenda for a Just and Fair Transition to Sustainability, London: Palgrave
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- Morena, Edouard, Dunja Krause and Dimitris Stevis (2020), Just Transitions: Social Justice in the Shift Towards a Low-Carbon World, London: Pluto
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