What is a Just Transition?

A principle originating from the US labour movement

Image shows workers standing at a constuction site. Image by Ahmed Nishaath. Source https://unsplash.com/photos/s4g-5YjSoh4

The concept “just transition” refers to the principle important to underpin policies to mitigate negative socioeconomic consequences that arise during the transition to a low-carbon society. However, the concept has been subject to different interpretations and currently lacks theoretical and practical clarity. As a result, a just transition plan can fail to deliver intended justice and mitigate adverse outcomes.

The concept originated in the United States reflecting upon how investment for restructuring a post-war economy following the end of World War II had led to the creation of new jobs and a new economy driven primarily by education. 

Similarly, unions of workers in the chemical industry sought measures that would mitigate negative economic and social degradation for workers whose positions may be threatened by closure or industry restructuring.

The term “just transition” was then made explicit during the 1990’s by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union. Tony Mazzochi, an elected official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ Union popularised the idea of a ‘Superfund for Workers’ whose jobs may be under threat. As “Superfund” had many negative connotations, the term “Just Transition” began to be used explicitly instead. 

“We need to provide workers with a guarantee that they will not have to pay for clear air and water with their jobs, their living standards or their future.” – Tony Mazzochi

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels will inevitably benefit some and be costly for others. In other words, the energy transitions will create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. ‘Winners’ can be found, in the renewable energy sector, which generates a considerable number of employment openings and profitable opportunities for business investments. 

At the same time, however, some groups will be negatively affected by decarbonisation. These include workers and communities that depend on fossil fuel activity and are expected to suffer from the phasing out of these industries (e.g., in terms of job losses and economic turmoil).

The main challenge in the short-term for such groups is to find alternative local employment, as fossil fuel industries often tend to dominate entire local labour markets, and there is little potential for other industries to absorb displaced workers. The absence of re-training or re-skilling renders job displacement even more problematic and may require physical relocation. In addition, communities face long-term challenges too. They often rely on the spending capacity of the local workforce and their families, whose income supports local businesses.

Consequently, one may also expect that displaced workers and affected community members will rely more on social services and public assistance programmes, which increases the pressure on these programmes. Finally, the loss of local jobs and its concomitant dampening effect on economic vitality can lead to political unrest and the destabilisation of social order. In broad terms, it can be argued that the phasing out of the fossil fuel industry will significantly impact on the local communities that depend on it.

Furthermore, the need for a just transition for workers and communities dependent on the fossil fuel industries has recently gained more comprehensive support, as evidenced by the final agreement of the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) held in Cancun (2010), the Paris Agreement (2015), the UN Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration (2018) and the Just Transition Declaration of COP 26 of 2021. Finally, the European Union’s commitment to a just transition is reflected in the Coal Regions in Transition Initiative and the Just Transition Fund created to support and revive vulnerable regions that are economically tied to the fossil fuel industries.