Who Needs a Just Transition?

This commentary is part of the Just Transition Initiative: Solutions to Secure an Inclusive and Sustainable Future. This new partnership project was developed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Energy Security and Climate Change Program and the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) to investigate how to achieve a just transition through the transformational change necessary to address climate change.

To some people, the term “just transition” sounds like a promise—an opportunity to realize a future fundamentally more attuned to remedying the economic, social, and environmental imbalances that plague all too many communities today. To others, it seems like a threat—a euphemism used to signal disapproval of the only life and livelihood that many communities have ever known and the intent to move them to something new and far less certain. To others still, the very idea is either so irrelevant and abstract that it seems meaningless or so ambitious it seems unachievable. For a growing number of people deeply invested in addressing global climate change, however, it seems like the only plausible path to a future that is safe and just.

So, what is a just transition, and who really needs it? In its current form, the term is an acknowledgment of three fundamental things. First, that climate change will lead to unavoidable economic and social changes. Second, that those changes will unfold in very uneven ways for much of the world. And third, as different groups make conscious choices about how to respond to these changes, there is a moral responsibility to ensure a more equitable distribution of the benefits and risks associated with the choices that we make. The notion of just transitions suggests that these diverse changes should be managed so as to bring about environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic development in ways that “leave no-one behind.”

The term has roots in the modern-day labor movement, designed as a tool to advocate for and promote standards of engagement and outcomes when transitioning workers from one industry and activity to another. It is closely associated with and often combined with elements of the broader social justice, environmental justice, and equity worlds, and, contemporarily, the fraught world of economic planning and the urgent challenges associated with climate change. In practical terms, just transitions describe how communities around the world are grappling with challenges related to climate change, the allocation of scarce water resources, and unsustainable food systems, often by protecting their workers and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Covid-19 has shown clearly that a planned and just response is preferable to a crisis-induced reaction in which marginalized and vulnerable groups bear the brunt of environmental, economic, and social fallout. Just transitions are a proactive approach to emerging crises and the impacts of the decisions we make in dealing with or averting these crises.

It was picked up by the international climate community and included in the Paris Agreement as a commitment to take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.” This commitment was furthered through a Just Transition Declaration at the Katowice summit (COP 24) in 2018, and many countries are beginning to actively work to incorporate the basic notion, tools, and processes of a just transition into nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national development plans. This includes thinking about how the process and outcomes of deep decarbonization could provide employment opportunities on a widespread and equitable basis.

In climate negotiations, just transitions are now often considered a necessary condition for large-scale support for climate action. Failure to recognize or engage with labor unions, marginalized groups in local communities, threatened business sectors, and government structures has led to significant resistance to renewable energy and decarbonization plans. Recent high-profile examples include the opposition to climate policies that were perceived as unjust in places like France and Chile. However, the reality is that the term means different things to different people and elicits a wide range of responses depending on the contexts within which it is mobilized and the interests of the groups involved. Just transition processes and outcomes will, therefore, require a commitment to meaningful engagement with diverse stakeholders and the possibility for these stakeholders to influence the distribution of benefits and losses in context sensitive ways. It is for this reason that we refer to “just transitions” and not a just transition.

Another important consideration is the scope of just transition policies. Should these policies only target workers displaced by shifting away from a certain type of energy use or emissions-intensive sector of the economy? Should the policies take into account communities affected by job losses along extended value chains? Or should the policies place emphasis on the broader economic and social impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities? Even in the context of expected economic and employment gains associated with the transition, estimated by the New Climate Economy to be around $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs over business as usual by 2030, it is important to address constituent concerns about who benefits from those gains, how and at what pace. If one of the goals of promoting just transitions is to secure broad-based buy-in for climate action, then navigating very different sets of expectations will be a critical step toward achieving that objective.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for decisive action, the significance of ensuring that the transition pathways that we choose are both safe and just is being recognized as imperative at the local, national, and global levels. As such, there is a growing urgency to develop more concrete tools and strategies, especially since the Paris Agreement and NDCs require countries to start moving faster in setting out targets, action plans, and concrete steps.

Much of what exists today is in the realm of theory, with few examples of success and critical analysis of lessons learned. The principles of just transitions have been discussed for many years, but there is great uncertainty over who to involve in consultations, the speed and depth of transitions, and how to finance them. Practical plans and resources for policymakers are also lacking. 

As we recognize that just transitions are important to advancing climate objectives, two critical areas require urgent attention. First, proponents of just transitions must ensure that the concept is better understood and more appealing to a range of stakeholders. This requires acknowledging the various interests and agendas of diverse groups while simultaneously seeking areas of convergence, collaboration, and learning. Second, policymakers, investors, and the private sector must figure out how to deliver on the promises of just transitions in more effective and context-sensitive ways. Both of these things require a careful review of what we do and do not know and the development of tools and strategies to advance just transitions. Drawing on the rich history of the concept and the emerging cases of just transitions we intend to do just that.

This publication was written by the Just Transition Initiative team, a collaborate effort by CSIS and CIF.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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